Babies are born social creatures. From their earliest days, they begin to connect to and collect information from their caregivers. In fact, even newborns are capable of imitating facial expressions, demonstrating an understanding of how another’s actions relate to their own. Within weeks, they are cooing and intentionally smiling, responding in rhythm to their caregiver’s communications. By the end of the first three months, most families feel they “know” their infant, and that they have meaningful 2-way communication that includes game playing (e.g., peek-a-boo; for some ideas, see this site with games). Until approximately your baby’s first birthday, he and his primary caretaker are often immersed in an intimate dyad of love and learning.
This intimate dyad is part of what researcher Erik Erikson calls the stage of Basic Trust vs. Mistrust. From 0-2, children are engaged in relationships, trying to develop a sense of being nurtured and loved. They seek a relationship that engenders trust, security, and a sense of optimism. If they succeed, they will have mastered the basic psychosocial goals of this age and will advance in development with a strong and secure sense of the world and their place within it. For it is only from a place of secure attachment that a baby is safe enough to explore the larger world around her.
Around 9-12 months, babies become more interested in exploration. This drive often coincides with their learning to crawl and/or walk, which leads to new adventures further away from nurturing caretakers. They begin to point to objects, an important developmental milestone that demonstrates their ability to establish a shared focus with another. Pointing thus allows interactions to expand to include objects and actions, enlarging babies’ ability to learn through more complex interactions.
Between 9 and 18 months, babies develop a more sophisticated understanding not only of other people and things, but also themselves. For example, if you secretly put a spot on a 15-month-old baby’s nose and put them in front of the mirror, they don’t behave any differently. Do the same to an 18 month old and they stare at the dot and then try and remove it from their face. Thus, it is not until around 18 months that a baby recognizes the image in the mirror is actually himself, and not just a different playful toddler.
Nine to eighteen months is also the time when stranger anxiety begins, where babies hang back with less well-known adults. They will also show displeasure (at least initially) when their primary caretakers leave the room or put them in the care of another. According to British psychologist John Bowlby, this attachment serves a useful function. That is, it allows a sort of equilibrium between a baby’s increasing need to venture out and explore, and his need for a secure base to protect and guide him. The sense of security that a primary caregiver provides can then be carried with a child when she explores, allowing her to continue to meet the additional developmental drive for exploration and discovery. The ongoing development of this secure base allows babies to “graduate” from Erikson’s Trust vs Mistrust stage.
Around the age of two, children will enter what Erikson called the stage of Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt. It is during this stage that we see the full appearance of a child’s will. Parents’ patience with and ability to successfully respond to a child’s will affects the outcome of this stage. It is during this stage that children develop their first interests, and an increased desire for autonomy. With encouragement, children explore and expand on these interests and drives. They develop self-sufficient behavior (e.g., begin to dress themselves, feed themselves, etc.), and a sense of autonomy. With punishment, punitive responses, or demands that are beyond the child’s capabilities, they retreat into shame and doubt.
Between the ages of 2 and 3, children begin to push the limits to determine what a parent’s boundaries are. Your child may begin to say no, have temper tantrums, become “stubborn,” or more negative. She is testing to see if you will still love her, no matter what. She is verifying the lengths you will go to to keep her safe.
Knowing the developmental function of these challenging behaviors, it is helpful to maintain consistent limits, enforce reliable boundaries, and offer your child as many choices as possible (e.g., peas or carrots for snack; letting her choose her red skirt or blue pants, etc.). To do this effectively, limit the choices to two and offer a time frame for response before you decide for her (e.g., “Decide which jacket you will wear while I tie your shoes”). Follow through. Even if your child changes his mind, take his decision as final and act accordingly.
Not all of the shift to autonomy is negative. As children assert themselves, they begin to recognize themselves as separate from but still similar to others. This allows them to develop and demonstrate empathy, which makes its debut at around 2-years-old. You can foster this development by giving your child (boy or girl) the words for emotions that you or others (e.g., a favorite book character, playgroup pals) are feeling.
Even very young children can develop and apply relatively complex understandings of people and emotions. For instance, by the time they turn three, they are quite good at reading facial expressions. Most children this age can articulate how another will feel if they don’t get a coveted toy (disappointed) or if they are left alone (scared).
Foster your child’s understanding of basic emotions by talking to them about how people cry or frown when they are sad, how they smile and laugh when they are happy, how their eyes get big and they tend to withdraw when they are scared, etc. Don’t forget to use words like frustrated or worried, to allow them to begin to understand more subtle emotions as well. By providing a cluster of clues in this way, you support your child’s developing understanding of this relatively complex topic.
The goal at the end of infancy is for your child to have a secure base, a strong and nurturing primary relationship, and a spirited drive to explore and experiment. From here they will begin to seek out experiences and others to expand their world and enlarge their sphere of influence. Given how seemingly helpless your child was when she entered the world, by the time she turns three, she’s come a long way, baby!