How much does your baby understand about emotion?

Recently, as I watched my mother being passed my baby nephew for the first time, I noticed how her face changed to an animated wide-mouthed smile and how she said “Hello baby” in a soft tender voice. The cooing tones of “baby talk” that we’re all familiar with. These changes of facial expression and tone of voice are things that adults seem to do naturally and instinctively when talking to a baby – full of positive emotion so exaggerated that it would sound ridiculous if we spoke like that to anyone else (except our pets, of course). The question is, why do we do this and how are babies using this information (if at all)?

Later that same day, I was playing a fun game with my 3 year old niece. The game involved walking slowly up to a cupboard, opening the door, looking at each other with big scared faces, after which she would say “quick run!” and we would run down the hall as a make believe dinosaur (who was apparently hiding in the cupboard) chased us. Once we were safely hidden under the bed in the next room, she would get up and the sequence would repeat itself again (and again and again and again!)

family of hands

How early does emotional understanding begin?

This type of play, where the social exchange of emotion plays an important role, is not uncommon in children around this age. This example shows an understanding, at 3 years old, of fear as a concept, how to express it, and how to behave in a fearful situation (even make-believe ones). So if this is achieved at 3 years, just how early does emotional understanding begin? Despite using opposing emotions in these examples, could it be possible that the intensified emotions that my mother was directing at her newborn grandson are the basis for how children come to understand emotion?

Many developmental researchers agree that, along with aiding language development, “baby talk” serves an important purpose for babies’ social and emotion development. Even though the evidence for newborns is relatively limited and difficult to interpret, research has made clear that by 12 months of age, babies are successfully processing the emotions expressed by others and reacting to them. For example, if a baby is shown a new toy which lights up and bounces around, at first they might not quite know what to do with it. Usually, they will look at a parent for some kind of information to help them figure it out. If the parent gives them a big smile and says it’s ok, the baby is likely to relax and watch, or maybe play with, the toy. But if the parent gives them a scared face or says something with an anxious tone, the baby is more likely to back away from the toy or even become upset. This shows quite plainly how 12 month olds can understand emotional signals, at least as an information source for helping to work out the world around them. This process appears to involve cause and effect, where the babies have learnt that mum’s scared face usually results in something unpleasant happening and her happy face is usually when something nice is happening. Although, there is some evidence to suggest that this emotional processing may be deeper than a simple understanding of consequences.

Daughter Getting Talked To

What research has found

There are some handy ways that researchers can look at the activity of the brain in young children and babies. One way, known as EEG, is by placing a cap (which feels similar to a swimming cap) on the head. This cap holds small electrodes which can detect activity in the brain. Amazingly, we can then get a record of the processes going on in a baby’s brain. By recording EEG while babies see or hear different types of emotions, through faces and voices, researchers have found that different brain processes occur depending on whether the emotions are positive (e.g. happy) or negative (e.g. fearful). With this type of evidence, some studies have found that babies can distinguish between emotions at just a few months of age.

So this evidence, and more, has started to paint a picture that tells us that young babies are understanding, on some level, what different types of emotional signals mean. After the first year, this understanding continues to become more complex. By around 4 or 5, children are starting to be able to give labels to and describe different emotions, to realise their social importance, and emotions are starting to have a deeper impact on them, even influencing their memories and ability to learn.

baby in winter

Emotional development and Autism

Here I’d like to point out that, just like adults, children and babies are very diverse. We can look at a large number of individuals and get an idea of how people behave or respond on average, but many children do not fit into what is considered “typical”. This may not necessarily mean that something is wrong, just that something is different and the children may need different kinds of support. One example of this is children who have a diagnosis of an autism spectrum condition. Autism is usually diagnosed around 3 years (although considerable progress has been made in recent times to detect it younger than this). Children with autism often show differences in how they understand and process emotion. They may be able to recognise basic emotions in others just as effectively as their peers, but can begin to struggle relative to other children in more complex scenarios, like when the emotions have a deeper social meaning (like shame or jealousy) or they have to process emotions from multiple sources at once. While the developmental path that children with autism travel comes with many strengths in other areas, challenges with emotional understanding is something they are likely to face.

baby at the beach

Could Autism characteristics be identified in children as young as 12 months or younger?

So if, in general, babies’ processing of adult expressions are the first building blocks to being able to play and understand a game about a scary dinosaur at 3 years, could it be that differences in the understanding of emotions of children with autism go right back to differences in processing emotions as babies? If so, is this one way that we can improve our ability to understand autism earlier?

There is some research to suggest that this might be the case, but it is limited. At the University of Queensland, as part of my PhD project, I am hoping to find out more about this. I am preparing to conduct a research study which looks at brain activity when babies see and hear emotional signals. I am hoping to do a comparison of babies who are considered at a slightly higher risk of autism to babies who are relatively low risk. Higher risk babies are those who already have an older sibling with a diagnosis of autism. This does not always mean that they are going to have autism, but that they are at an increased risk compared to the general population. Low risk babies are those who have no family history of autism, including at least one older sibling without autism. By comparing these groups, we can see if there are any early differences in the processing of emotion in those who may go on to be diagnosed with autism.

I am currently looking for babies and families in Brisbane to be involved in this research. If you have a baby under 12 months of age with at least one older sibling, and are interested in helping out, please contact me! [email protected]

Please also contact me with any questions or comments about this article. Thanks for reading!


Boucher, J., Lewis, V., & Collis, G. M. (2000). Voice processing abilities in children with autism, children with specific language impairments, and young typically developing children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiary, 41(7), 847-857. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00672

Grossmann, T., Striano, T., & Friederici, A. D. (2005). Infants’ electrical brain responses to emotional prosody. Brain Imaging, 16(16), 1825-1828.

Grossmann, T., Striano, T., & Friederici, A. D. (2006). Crossmodal integration of emotional information from face and voice in the infant brain. Developmental Science, 9(3), 309-315. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2006.00494.x

Gunnar, M. R., & Stone, C. (1984). The effects of positive maternal affect on infant responses to pleasant, ambiguous and fear-provoking toys. Child Development, 55(4), 1231-1236. doi: 10.2307/1129992

Kahana-Kalman, R., & Walker-Andrews, A. S. (2001). The role of person familiarity in young infants’ perception of emotional expressions. Child Development, 72(2), 352-369. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00283

Rutherford, M. D., Baron-Cohen, S., & Wheelwright, S. (2002). Reading the mind in the voice: A study with normal adults and adults with Asperger Syndrome and high functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(3), 189-194. doi: 10.1023/A:1015497629971

Walker-Andrews, A. S. (1986). Intermodal perception of expressive behaviours: Relation of eye and voice? Developmental Psychology, 22(3), 373-377. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.22.3.373

Zhang, D., Liu, Y., Hou, X., Sun, G., Cheng, Y., & Luo, Y. (2014). Discrimination of fearful and angry emotional voices in sleeping human neonates: A study of the mismatch brain responses. Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, 8(422), 1-10. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00422

Many thanks to Melina, PhD student at the University of Queensland, for this article.

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