3-12 months

Your baby often expresses and learns about emotions through play. Here are some play ideas for helping your child express his feelings and explore the world around him.

Baby emotions and play

Babies are only just starting to learn about their emotions and how to express them. Play is the natural way that babies learn and develop, and play gives them a chance to explore and express feelings like happiness or frustration.

And that’s where you come in. Through play with your baby, you can help your baby learn to communicate emotions.

Play with your baby is mostly about back-and-forth interactions with you – it’s not all about toys. Just making faces with you is a game for your baby. And as you gaze into each other’s eyes, you build your relationship too. 

Babies can tell you a lot about what they’re feeling using body language. Our Baby Cues video guide shows you common baby cues to help you understand what your baby might be saying. 

What to expect from baby emotions

Your baby is likely to:

  • laugh aloud at 2-4 months
  • begin to withdraw from strangers and be more anxious with new people from about eight months – this is called stranger anxiety
  • prefer you to any other adult and be clingy towards you from about eight months
  • show signs of separation anxiety from about eight months, even when you just walk out of a room in your own home
  • give loving cuddles from 10 months. 

Play ideas to encourage baby emotions

Here are some play ideas to help your baby explore and express emotions:

  • Make music with your baby. Musical play like singing or making sounds with toys or simple instruments can help children let their emotions out.
  • Use touch when you play with your baby. This can help your baby express emotions. You could try rhymes like ‘This little piggy went to market’ and tickle your baby’s feet as you sing.
  • Try messy play with sand, mud, paints and other gooey substances. This can help your older baby get used to the way different things make her feel. For example, your baby can slap mud around happily, or slosh water angrily.
  • Use puppets or toys to explain simple emotions. For example, you can use puppets or toys and say things like ‘The car is happy because the bus is going for a drive with him’ or ‘The mouse is sad so the cat will give him a cuddle’.
Although play is important for learning and development, it’s mostly about having fun. If it isn’t fun, it isn’t play. So it’s a good idea to follow your baby’s lead when it comes to play. Your baby’s body language will let you know when she’s interested in playing and when she’s had enough. 

When to seek help for baby emotions

Children grow and develop at different rates. In general, the key moments in development happen in the same order, but the age they happen might vary for each child, even for children in the same family.

You might want to seek advice from your GP or child and family health nurse if:

  • your baby regularly turns his face away from you and won’t look into your eyes
  • your baby’s feelings are difficult to understand
  • your baby’s feelings don’t seem right for the situation he’s in
  • your baby rarely uses emotional expressions to communicate feelings – for example, he doesn’t show you when he’s happy or sad.

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Last updated or reviewed
23-03-2018

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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