Understanding your baby’s emotions

Behaviour expert Desmond Morris talks us through your baby's emotional development



What influences a baby’s mood so that one minute she’s gurgling happily, the next she’s fractious and miserable? Studies of babies reveal they are happiest with gentle stimulation. They become bored and restless if there’s no activity of any kind and anxious if they are surrounded by intense activity. But what kind of gentle activity should this be?

Mother and laughing baby


Well, a baby’s mood can be affected by something as simple as the sound of a mother’s heartbeat. Before she’s born, a baby is exposed to certain sounds and movements that she later associates with peace and security, such as the rhythmic beat of her mother’s body as she walks. These two sensations become deeply embedded in the developing brain of the feotus, and come to spell safety and protection, even after birth. So when a mother holds her baby close to her chest, the sound of her heart helps calm her baby.

Smiley baby


Having a sense of humour is fundamental to human behaviour – and it has benefits, too! Tests have shown laughter lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system and reduces stress hormones. Laughter starts some time in the fourth or fifth month. Actions most likely to get a laugh include include a ‘boo!’ sound made by a smiling parent, or a raspberry noise as you blow gently against your baby’s tummy. Being bounced up and down on a parent’s lap, or lifted high in the air and gently swung from side to side are also appealing to your little one.

mum lifting baby


Most babies’ fears stem from feeling a lack of protection, making him panic and start crying, as he tries to sound the alarm.

Fear of falling
A baby panics at sudden changes in position or jerky movements, which he reads as signs that an upset mother senses danger, while being held gently and peacefully, makes him feel safe and helps him relax.

shy baby girl


Fear of strangers
Up to the age of about 6 months, a baby can’t distinguish between close relatives and strangers and is quite happy for either to pick him up. From 6 months, however, he starts to recognise his nearest and dearest and may panic and start crying if a stranger picks him up. Eventually, your baby will learn that even other people can be friendly, but this takes time and cannot be hurried.

surprised baby


Fear of the dark
If a baby cries when left alone in his cot and the light in his bedroom is turned out, the chances are he isn’t frightened of the dark, but if being separated from his parents. It’s not until a child is about 2 years old that his imagination starts to create lurking monsters at the foot of his bed in his darkened bedroom. This is a natural phase most small children go through.

Laughing baby


Babies have a distinct personality from a very early age. While one baby might be quiet, another – even if he has the same loving parents – may be alert, active or cry more often. So what causes the differences? Although we know very little about how genes influence personality, it seems certain that environmental differences cannot explain all the variations in character that we see in families. Although genes play a part, parents can still make a difference. It is possible to create a more balanced personality by encouraging a nervous child to feel more confident in extrovert activities and vice versa.

Desmond Morris Baby book

Desmond Morris – Baby

Extract from Baby by Desmond Morris
£12.99, Octopus Books

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