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How Emotion Can Affect Infant Development

Mother helping toddler walk

In a world of flashcards, baby sign language, and a host of other tools designed to make babies smarter, it’s easy to forget that parents have been parenting children—and turning them into geniuses—long before technology promised to do it for them. Oftentimes the best way to help a child become smarter, more emotionally clued in, and happier doesn’t involve a new product or gimmick; the basics of parenting are really all you need. Even more interestingly, your emotions and your child’s can both affect her development. So love really does matter, and cognitive science can now conclusively demonstrate that a child’s emotional life influences her brain’s development.

Before your baby can walk, talk, or even breathe on her own, her brain is laying down neural connections. During pregnancy, the mother’s emotional life strongly affects development. Stress and anxiety are especially problematic because they release large quantities of cortisol, which can pass through the placenta and into the developing fetus. Too much cortisol can inhibit development, resulting in lower birth weight and, in extreme cases, developmental delays. Conversely, women who remain calm and relaxed during pregnancy are more likely to have healthy pregnancies and less likely to give birth to children with developmental issues.

Attachment is the process of bonding between a parent and a child. While movies and books tell us that attachment happens immediately, it actually takes several months for a baby to bond strongly to her parents. By 6 months, a child immediately recognizes her parents’ faces, and by a year she feels distress when separated from them. Healthy, loving attachments foster strong brain development, and children with close bonds with their parents walk, talk, and read earlier. However, when children endure long separations from their parents—due to divorce, deployment, long-distance jobs, and other factors—they may develop more slowly.

We all feel stress from time to time, and doctors now know that chronic stress can cause a host of health problems. But babies are especially susceptible to stress, and their underdeveloped limbic system makes it much more difficult for them to manage stress. Infants rely on soothing from their parents to calm themselves, and without it, their body releases a variety of hormones to help them manage stress but that, in high doses, can cause long-term developmental problems. Extended periods of crying, being left alone to cry, separation from an attachment figure, and violence in the home can all cause babies immense stress.

Excitement and Joy
There’s nothing better than a happy baby, and a smiling baby doesn’t just light up a room. When babies are happy, their brains are working hard. This is why times of low stress are the best times for children to learn. Babies learn best in an entertaining, comfortable environment, which is why reading together, singing songs, and exploring the world is typically much more effective than the use of educational programs and flashcards. Parents should be mindful of one potential problem with excitement. Babies’ brains process extreme excitement in the same way they process stress. Thus it’s important for parents to help babies manage their emotions by providing distractions and calming signals when they note that their babies are growing excessively excited.


  1. Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
    Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Related articles:
Attachment: What is it?
Filial Therapy Helps Parents and Children Connect Through Play
Can You Guess the Number One Complication of Childbirth?

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  • Alyssa June 1st, 2012 at 10:59 AM #1

    I really believe that our children feel the things that we are feeling and that goes for our emotions too!
    We have to be very careful to how we manage those emotions and react in any given situation because this illustrates just how much of how they process the world they get via the messages that we communicate.

  • alton June 2nd, 2012 at 7:01 AM #2

    As a man, I know that I don’t have the liberty to speak quite as freely about this subject as many of the women who read the site do.
    But. . .
    I do strongly feel that women need to try to remain in check with their emotions when they are expecting. It will help with their blood pressure, it will help with the stress levels that they feel, and as this research shows, it will certainly help to keep your babies in better health too.

  • Harold.K June 2nd, 2012 at 7:26 PM #3

    Wow,the last point was surprising! Extreme excitement is bad! Well, there is always a moderation is good to everything I guess.

    I would like to add that although a lot of people take care of their diet and visits to the doc, not too many think about avoiding stress and other such psychological aspects. That habit needs to be cultivated.

  • Mags June 3rd, 2012 at 8:46 AM #4

    You have to remember that for all women pregnancy is not necessarily a happy event. There are teen pregnancies, women who are single who get pregnant unintentionally. Now I know what many of you will say, that there are means for prevention. And while that is true, life is not ideal and many of those women will claim that contraception was neither available to them or readily accessible. So what do we do for those women? I am sure that they know the many pitfalls of staying stressed out, but what are they to do without the support that many of us have enjoyed while pregnant but they do not?

  • Susan Bruhn June 8th, 2012 at 3:43 AM #5

    I don’t exactly know what my mother was doing when I was still in her womb. But my mother told me stories of her past and she really had bad times. Maybe that is why I’m like this. Negative thinker, low self confidence, and afraid of trying new things. Sigh…

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