Oct 16, 2014

Social-emotional development: three things babies need

Miriam Voran, Ph.D., has a psychoanalytic psychotherapy practice in West Lebanon, NH and Montpelier, VT. She earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Virginia in 1995, focusing on attachment; and completed her internship and post-doctoral fellowships at Dartmouth Medical School. Her clinical interests include infant-parent psychotherapy, early signs of autism, and early childhood mental health consultation. She is an active member of the Early Childhood Mental Health Network of the Upper Valley, and an Adjunct Faculty at Geisel Medical School at Dartmouth.

Thinking About Feelings Helps Children Learn to Think

Getting kids ready for school doesn’t just start with buying lunch boxes and backpacks, or even with teaching kids to count. It starts on day one—before children have any grasp of language. An infant's first caregivers can begin to teach her, even in the earliest moments of life, the basics of curiosity, cooperation, emotional resilience, self-confidence and self-control—social-emotional skills that are essential to success in school and beyond. To teach these social-emotional skills, caregivers draw on their own “mindsight”—their ability to see the baby’s mind, and to recognize the baby’s behaviors as signs of its feelings, wishes, and goals.

Three Things Infants Need

During the first year, a time of peak growth for the social-emotional areas of the brain, infants need three things. 

1.  They need to feel understood. Infants are especially motivated to learn about other humans. They are receptive to empathy and can detect its absence. Even a newborn can imitate facial expressions and watch for a response. Infants prefer looking at faces above all else. Face-to-face playtimes, especially, help infants feel understood, expand their emotional range, give them practice in handling excitement, and strengthen their ability to regulate emotion. These playtimes, built on serve and return interactions, also fuel healthy brain growth.

2.  Secure attachments are essential for healthy brain development. Infants fall in love with the caregivers who understand them and who dependably and consistently keep them physically and emotionally safe. Most important are those moments when infants signal, “I’m scared and need your help.” When caregivers recognize their distress and help them calm down, infants begin to learn how to communicate their emotions effectively and develop trust for their caregivers. Such successful attachment interactions build habits of cooperation that can last a lifetime. They also buffer the infant from stress, freeing mental energy for learning. In this way, secure attachment facilitates learning, and learning is an act of independence. This reminds us that secure attachment always implies a balance between attachment and independence.

3.  Independence is gained through skills that are learned through scaffolding. “Scaffolding” is providing care with just the right mix of teaching and support. Although independence is most recognizable in toddlers and beyond, even infants are taking steps to be in charge of themselves. For example, we might place the rattle close enough to be successfully grasped, yet just far enough away to challenge the infant’s attention and tolerance for frustration in a healthy way. The independence skills learned through scaffolding are part of what we call the “executive functioning” skill set, and include the the ability to:

  • control impulses
  • flexibly regulate attention (focus when necessary and avoid distractions)
  • make and implement plans

These skills don’t just automatically emerge; they develop through teaching and repeated practice with supportive caregivers. 

Social-Emotional & Cognitive Development are Interrelated

We’ve long recognized the executive functioning skill set as essential for school success. What we haven’t always seen is that these skills arise from social and emotional interactions, building on an ability to manage one’s emotions. Cognitive and social-emotional development influence each other in a give-and-take way. Without healthy emotional development, children don’t have the confidence or mental energy to learn. It’s no surprise that the National Research Council and Institute on Medicine has concluded that, “nurturing, stable and consistent relationships are the key to healthy growth, development and learning.”

Successfully Responding to Baby’s Needs

What makes it possible to provide these three ingredients of a quality early relationship? Research has suggested that, above all, it’s “mindsight”—the ability to recognize the infant’s mind, to understand the infant’s feelings, and to see behaviors as expressions of inner emotional states.  Understanding the baby’s mind, in turn, depends on knowing one’s own mind. When we get tired or stressed, it’s easy for us to misinterpret the baby’s signals, or “serves,” to conveniently fit those signals to our wishes. For example, a caregiver who needs a break might view the baby’s fussing as a sign of fatigue and put her to bed.  But what if the baby was bored and the fuss was really a “serve” to get a playmate? Babies and their caregivers do best when caregivers recognize and admit their own feelings, wishes and needs. The better we know ourselves, the better we can know the young children in our care. And the better we know them, the better we’ll pick up the messages that they serve, and then return responses that help them feel understood and secure.

With nurturing, supportive, encouraging relationships, and safe and stable environments, children will develop the social and emotional skills needed to become confident, resilient and life-long learners. Without these quality early experiences, they’ll struggle. We must ensure that all children—including the 72% who have all parents in the workforce and may spend up to 40 hours a week in care outside the home—are getting the experiences they need. Our children are our future workforce, thought leaders, parents and community members. When it comes to investing in a healthy society, we’re all in this together.

Back To Top


Get the latest news and updates on Vermont’s Child Care Campaign from the Let’s Grow Kids team, directly to your inbox: