Crying and cooing are how babies express their earliest emotions – contentment and distress. By the end of the first year their emotional responses have become much more varied. They include:

  • sadness and joy
  • disgust, anger, fear
  • surprise and interest. (224)

The development of children’s early emotional capacities, like language and other skills are linked to their rapidly developing neural systems. Emotions develop in layers as the brain matures. (126) How the emotional response system is organized in the brain, for example the tendency to be more anxious or placid in certain situations, appears to be a combination of inherited predispositions and early experiences. (224)

Babies who receive sensitive, responsive care during the early months of life are more likely to show greater emotional control at the end of the first year. In a situation of minor discomfort or distress, they are able to calm themselves. If they need to be calmed by an adult, they will be calmed more easily. (53,157)

Influences on the positive outcome: Physically healthy

Sensitive attunement and involvement of parents and caregivers
Infant’s temperment

Note: These influences are also listed in the drop-down list above. Please use this menu to navigate within this page.

Sensitive attunement and involvement of parents and caregivers

Many of babies’ early experiences relate to their basic physical needs. They need to be fed, changed, bathed, kept warm, and comforted if they are uncomfortable. Parents who respond to these needs in warm and predictable ways help to reassure their babies that someone is there to meet their needs.

At birth, babies’ needs are met on demand. Over time parents discover the rhythms of their infants and work with those rhythms to develop a routine, for example, breastfeeding every three hours, bath in the morning, nap in the afternoon. When routines are followed consistently, babies experience less stress.

Infants learn that their parents respond to their positive emotions as well as their distress. Among a group of 30 12 month-olds, mothers of securely attached infants were more likely to have responded both to their positive and negative emotions. (70)

Research indicates that, at a neurological level, each time infants are soothed, the neural circuits in the brain that help them calm down are strengthened. Over time as the organization of cells in the emotional region of the brain that deals with stress are strengthened, their own ability to deal with minor discomfort or delays is strengthened – they are learning to soothe themselves. (53,157) The neural pathways that have been established will influence their later ability to regulate emotions and deal with stress. (70,157)

  • Other family members can support parents as they get to know their infant and work toward establishing routines.

  • Be informed about child development – understand how early experience helps to develop the capacity for emotional control.

Community groups that provide support to parents can also contribute to the positive emotional development of children. Parents who are supported themselves are more available to provide the emotional engagement needed by their infants. A range of community services help new parents by providing opportunities for them to share experiences with other parents and to learn about the needs of their infants.

  • Parenting programs can help reduce new parents’ feelings of isolation and gives them opportunities to ask questions about infant care and infant development.

  • Family resource centres provide a welcoming environment for parents. They offer both formal and informal opportunities to share information. Staff in family resource centres work to build relationships of trust and mutual respect with parents. They build their confidence by reinforcing their strengths as parents and modeling warm, responsive behaviours with their babies.

  • Homevisiting offers more support for caregivers than can be provided by regular services. It is also an option for those caregivers who are unlikely to use other services. Homevisiting programs take a holistic approach to supporting caregivers, providing social support, parent education, modeling positive interaction with infants, and providing links to other community services.

Infant's temperament

Infants have different characteristics at birth. Some cry a lot. Others are content. Some are quite animated. Others are very passive. These characteristics influence their parents and may influence the care they receive. Also, sometimes the baby’s temperament does not "fit" with the expectations of the parent. A poor "fit" makes it difficult to have the emotional involvement and sensitivity needed for healthy development. (114)

The nature versus nurture debate is still evident in discussions of infant temperament. The issues revolve around:

  • the extent to which emotional/behavioural tendencies are the result of biological make up or shaped by experience

  • the extent to which temperamental predispositions can be modified through experience, particularly early experience. (224, 70)

Both groups agree that infants are born with different innate responses to the world around them. Some observed differences include how easily they are distressed, how physically active they are, and how outgoing or shy they are. (114)

A classic experiment with rhesus monkeys is often used by those who argue that experience can make a difference. Young rhesus monkeys who possessed some of the same genetic predisposition to shyness as humans, but were raised by an expert, nurturing foster mother, not only outgrew their shyness but often became leaders among their peers. Other studies of identical twins argue for a stronger role for genetics. (224)

With recent advances in brain research, most researchers take a position that includes both nature and nurture. They argue that whatever predispositions children are born with, they can be influenced to some extent by their early experiences.

It may be that negative experiences are the most damaging in the early years. The stress response system of a child experiencing repeated threats or physical abuse may be seriously damaged. Ordinarily, the biochemical response of the body to a threatening situation passes quickly when the threat is gone. When threats are unpredictable and frequent, the stress response system is disrupted. When this occurs during sensitive periods of development, the neural circuits that control this response are strengthened and over time they are more easily triggered. Children’s ability to switch off the stress is compromised and they are in a constant state of anxiety. (53,157)

Studies of resilient children who grow up in adverse conditions suggest that their experiences of other warm, dependable, supportive relationships help to moderate the effect of these experiences. (190)

  • Other family members can support the parents as they get to know their infant and work out effective routines.

  • Parents can prepare for their baby's arrival by being informed about child development and understanding how early experience helps to develop the capacity for emotional control.

While communities have no direct influence over infants’ temperaments, programs that support parents through education about parenting and child development, skill-building and supportive relationships can help build confidence and reduce stress.


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