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Decoding Baby Emotions

Is it love – or gas? Here, we offer parents some insight and explanation into decoding your wee one's expressions.

It's not hard to tell when a toddler is happy, sad or tired. Smiles and giggles galore are easily recognizable signs of contentment, just as irritability and tantrums are signs that your little one may be feeling overwhelmed.

But what about babies up to age 1? Are those first smiles that melt your heart just gas? Or could they be an actual display of emotion?

The basics

Dr. Tisa Johnson, senior staff pediatrician at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, says it's not necessarily gas that's causing that grin.

"Babies are born with all the necessary pathways to exhibit happiness, surprise, fear and everything else from the newborn period," she says. "At about 8 weeks, responsive smiling begins when mom and dad are cooing at the baby to elicit a response. Whereas before, a baby may smile even if they have nothing to smile about."

Just as a newborn will cry to signal discontent due to a dirty diaper or because they want to be held, Johnson says those first smiles can actually indicate happiness, showing that their needs have been met.

"Emotion … is there from the moment the baby is born, from the first day of life," Johnson says. "This is particularly the case when mom does not have any pain medication (during labor). After the child is born, a baby will prefer their mother's voice over that of a stranger's. And that is a form of emotional attachment, which grows each and every day with caring and nurturing."

Love grows

A baby's expressiveness is a key component to cementing the parent-child bond.

Cynthia Delavega, 30, of Macomb Township, says her now 9-year-old son, Christopher, would "light up" as a baby when his father came home from work.

"He recognized our voices, and as soon as Ferdinand would come in the door, Chris would look and just smile from the first day," she says. "And when we spoke softly to him and smiled, he would smile back."

For Holly Sokolowski, 30, of Roseville, nurturing took place each day when she showered with her now 3-year-old son, Julian.

"It was our time," she says. "I would sing to him and do the ABCs."

And as Julian grew to meet social and emotional milestones, such as responsive smiling and making funny faces to get his mother to laugh, Sokolowksi says she fell even more in love with being a mother.

"I love watching them try to learn new things," she says. "The best is watching them become their own person."

Social and emotional milestones

Should your baby be smiling back at you by now? We all know that every baby is unique in his or her development, but the American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following developmental guidelines:

By 3 months, your baby should:

  • Begin to develop a social smile
  • Attempt to imitate facial expressions
  • Enjoy playing with other people
  • Cry when play stops

By 7 months, your baby should:

  • Enjoy social play
  • Respond to facial expressions and emotions

By 12 months, your baby should:

  • Cry when his parents leave
  • Repeat sounds or gestures to get your attention

Peek-a-boo!

How can parents encourage social and emotional milestones? Think about what you normally do, like playing peek-a-boo, singing or snuggling, and keep doing them! Creating an encouraging and supportive environment is essential to your baby's development, says Dr. Tisa Johnson. Parents also can:

  • Coo and talk to your child to encourage emotional and language development.
  • Play silly games to encourage laughter and anticipation.
  • Keep security items, such as blankets and pacifiers, within reach for quick comfort.
  • Use everyday routines like bathing, feeding, or diaper changes to create opportunities for interaction that will invite your child to respond to your emotions.

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