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Emotional Development in the First Year

No time period in your child's life will ever equal the physical and emotional development that occurs in his first year on earth. A newborn baby triggers instinctive emotions of love and attachment in you, but he doesn't return the feeling -- not at first. He doesn't even realize he's a person separate from you for the first few months of life. Watching the unfolding emotional development of your baby, from a selfish bundle of nerves to a loving, feeling and connected human being is one of the wonders of the first year of parenthood.


As sad as it sounds, your new baby has no real emotional attachment to you. He might recognize your voice and enjoy your touch, but he doesn't differentiate between you and the mailman as a love object at this point. This begins to change by age 4 months; by 7 months, most babies have formed an emotional attachment to specific people. At this age, if you disappear briefly or hand your baby to another person, he might look distressed, cry or try to wriggle away to get back to you.

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A newborn doesn't realize that he's his own person; in fact, he has little self-awareness. Between 4 and 7 months, he begins to realize that you and he are separate people. At this time, stranger anxiety may begin, as he realizes that he can be separated from you. At an even younger age, your baby will experiment with cause and effect, by batting at toys or making sounds that elicit certain reactions from you, which helps him realize that he is a separate person and can affect his world in different ways.


A newborn baby certainly expresses his feelings — usually in a piercing wail — but he has no understanding yet of cause and effect, or even what he's expressing. He has instinctive reactions to hunger, pain or pleasant or unpleasant sensations. By the end of his first year, your baby will express pleasure through smiles -- usually starting around age 6 weeks -- cooing and then vocalizing and finally, laughing out loud around 3 to 4 months. As young as 4 months, babies also express anger when you won't give them what they what by fussing or frowning or appear sad when they're left alone. Fear of certain things, rather than a general startle response to something unexpected, generally develops around 9 months.

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When you take care of your baby's needs during his first year of life, he begins to understand that he is safe because people will take care of his needs. He begins to trust that you will feed him, keep him warm and do all you can to keep him alive. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson describes the first year of life as resolving the issue of Trust vs Mistrust: infants who are cared for and loved will trust other people, while those who don't get the care they need will not. Institutionalized infants who receive food but no love or individual care won't develop normal emotional reactions to other people and will turn to self-stimulation or withdraw into their own world.

Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.

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