Baby emotions and play
Babies are generally good at telling you what they need – for example, ‘I’m hungry – feed me!’ But they’re only just starting to learn about emotions and how to express them.
Play is the natural way that babies and children learn and develop, and play gives them a chance to explore and express their feelings.
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 all about back-and-forth interactions with you – it’s not about toys or things. 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 10-18 months, even when you just walk out of a room in your own home
- give loving cuddles from 10 months
- experience fear for the first time from 12 months
- start to say how she feels, like saying ‘ow’ for pain or ‘yay’ for happy, from about 14 months.
Play ideas to encourage baby emotions
Play is one of the best ways for young children to find out about and express their feelings.
Here are some play ideas to help your baby explore and express emotions:
Messy play with sand, mud, paints and other gooey substances can help your baby get used to the way different things make him feel. Your baby can also express feelings this way – he can slap mud around happily, or slosh water angrily and stamp on it if he wants to.
- Musical play like singing or making noise with instruments can help children let their emotions out.
- Play through touch – for example, nursery rhymes that involve tickles – can help babies express feelings. You could try rhymes like ‘This little piggy went to market’.
- Take your baby to a park or an open space where she can crawl, roll and explore different things. This can also let her express her emotions, and it’s something she might want to do more as she becomes a toddler.
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 – sometimes he might be too tired to play or prefer to play quietly.
Worried about baby emotions? When to seek help
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.
If your baby has reached 18 months and shows no sign of separation anxiety, or has no preference for familiar faces, you might want to have her checked out by a health professional.
You might also want to seek advice if:
- 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.
What’s ‘normal’ can vary a lot. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your baby’s development, it’s a good idea to visit a health professional like your GP or child and family health nurse.