Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood

What emotions do newborns experience? When, why, and what are the consequences? A functionalist explanation of emotion informs this chapter, which holds that emotions developed as adaptive, survival-promoting processes with intrapersonal and interpersonal regulating roles. Bowlby claimed that dread of the dark and fear of being alone is adaptive since there is a clear relationship between these experiences and possible danger.

Emotional Experience

Emotions are personal and interpersonal life organisers, supporting or limiting growth and mental health. The breadth of emotions a young kid experiences and expresses stems from the meaning social interactions convey, influencing one's expectations and assessments of oneself and others. In other words, emotional experiences can be the outcome of - or the cause of - social interactions.

For example, stranger anxiety (usually between 8 and 9 months) may cause a newborn to cling to the mother and feel at ease only when she holds the baby close and says, "I am here for you." Through repetition, this type of contact will instil in the newborn a sense of confidence in the mother and a positive attitude in the face of adversity.

However, a different lesson may be learnt when a newborn stranger's fear is confronted by the caregiver's determination that she must go, leaving the baby to deal with the stranger on his or her own. If this encounter is repeated, it may exacerbate the child's fear and contribute to mistrust in the mother (and others). Other factors influencing infant social and emotional development include the child's biological makeup, partly influenced by prenatal experiences, as much current research emphasises, the marital relationship, the more extensive family network, social and economic factors, neighbourhood, and broader cultural forces.

Uri Bronfenbrenner, the inventor of this multidimensional understanding of environmental factors in infant development, argued that the family, particularly the primary carer (usually the mother), is the filter through which all other influences have an instant effect.


In 24 hours, newborn newborns often wail for 30-60 minutes. This accounts for 10-20% of their waking time because infants sleep approximately 16 hours or two-thirds of the day. There is an extensive range of typical variations in all behaviour. However, the 10% of newborns who cry for more than 3 hours each day are distressed for up to half their waking time. This concerns carers and has also been connected to postnatal depression, marital stress, and shaken infant syndrome. Fussiness appears to peak at six weeks in most cases.

However, particularly irritable babies usually become considerably more peaceful by three months of age. Moreover, babies who have their screams swiftly and effectively attended to in the first three months cry much less at nine months in the setting of solid marital satisfaction.

Scientists, mothers, and others have consistently classified infant cries as one of three sorts, signifying −

  • hunger,

  • exhaustion, or

  • pain

The latter being a brief, sharp, extended piercing sound followed by apnoea. The hunger scream rises gradually, but the exhausted cry is more of a whimper. Close contact with a newborn clearly aids a career in accurately identifying the source of the discomfort, and responding swiftly and sensitively is the recommended approach.

Smiling or Joy

The natural progression of the smile reaction is an instructive demonstration of how emotional capacities gradually and steadily emerge solely in response to the quality of care received. In other words, there are well-documented timelines for the appearance of good and negative emotions on newborns' faces and actions. At the same time, the infant's potential for expressing and sharing a wide range of emotions is tied to the face the newborn sees on the mother, father, or another carer. In response to babies' emotional displays, attentive care, including basic verbal descriptions of emotion, will likely increase children's accuracy in categorising and comprehending emotional expressions and sequences.

Newborns do not grin or only appear to smile when the corners of their mouths gently upturn in the Mona Lisa manner. Such positive reactions are transient and appear to suggest sensory contentment, such as after a meal or the passage of wind, or otherwise developing used to the pleasant sensation of having some influence over being a body in this world.

Over the first 6-8 weeks, this transitory positive expression becomes more persistent and distinct. By 8-10 weeks, the newborn has progressed to a slightly more elaborate closed or open-mouth smile, which is linked to familiarity with what the infant is gazing at, which can be alive (e.g., the mother's face) or inanimate (e.g., a mobile over the baby's cot).

Surprise, Anger and Sadness

Surprise, rage, and grief are all feelings that emerge from working memory and a set of expectations for a hoped-for event or encounter. Surprise, represented by a vertical oval open mouth and raised brows, is the natural reaction when things do not seem as they should or do not go as planned. When the hoped-for event or interaction does not occur, surprise can rapidly escalate to protest or wrath, complete with a furrowed brow and gritting of teeth.

Finally, resignation, despair, and even melancholy may ensue if this does not effectively restore the desired objective. The issue is that a sophisticated cognitive assessment process supports these emotional manifestations. We only witness definitive indications of these facial expressions of emotion in the latter half of the first year. The carer who can read these feelings on his or her baby's face will understand how important it is to talk about the positive reasons for experiencing these emotions and the many strategies to deal with them.


Surprisingly, the emergence of an organised display of dread is strongly related to the commencement of locomotion around 8-10 months and the cognitive-motoric attainment of object permanence. Infants exhibit stranger fear or 8-month anxiety when they have organised knowledge that a valued object can be out of sight but stay in memory and can be reclaimed. The fearful protest may entice the carer to return.

Clinically, there is cause for concern when a one-year-old newborn separates from a carer without protest. Infants who can walk alone might quickly find themselves in danger, staring over a cliff. Fear is an adaptive reaction that usually results in social reference (seeking clues on how to respond from a trusted carer). The significant social impact of a trusted carer has been established in classic tests utilising a visual cliff, in which a crawling child is put atop a flat surface that appears (to the infant) to be falling.

It is a transparent surface that can support the baby. Infants are often afraid of the impending fall and will not advance independently. However, when their mother positively communicates to them, telling them everything is safe, newborns advance, conquering their fear. This impact of confidence in the carer has been shown several times, especially when a stable infant-caregiver attachment characterises the pattern of relating.


There is a contradiction concerning early social and emotional development that should be noted for two reasons. Infants are far more perceptive and competent than was recognised 50 years ago, necessitating respect and sensitivity on the part of carers from early infancy, if not the moment of conception, forward; and even though there is little evidence to support the notion, popular in 1970, that 'bonding' occurs shortly after birth.

The latter idea sparked great (over) worry that no mother (or father) should lose out on the 'important' opportunity to bond with her newborn in the seconds, minutes, and hours after birth - an anxiety-inducing and unhelpful message.

Updated on: 09-May-2023


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