Social & Emotional Development in Infant & Toddlers

Written by lisa baker
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Social & Emotional Development in Infant & Toddlers
Interacting with a parent helps a baby's social development. (playing with mom image by Arpad Nagy-Bagoly from

The biggest changes in social and emotional development that an individual experiences happen before the age of 3. Between birth and the end of toddler age, children develop the foundation for all social interactions. They learn to feel and identify a wide variety of emotions, and they experience a wide range of social interactions. Understanding the social and emotional milestones that infants and toddlers achieve during this age range helps parents and caregivers promote growth throughout the infant and toddler years.

Milestones in Infancy: Birth to 12 Months

From the moment they are born, babies develop socially through communicating their needs. A newborn's cry is his first social interaction, and responding quickly to his cries encourages social development. By the age of 4 months, he has developed additional social skills such as turning his head to watch interesting faces and smiling in response to an adult's smile. By 6 months, he clearly indicates his emotions by laughing and cooing when he's happy and crying when he's upset. By 12 months, he can use social gestures such as waving, pointing and giving objects back and forth; he repeats simple sounds like "ma" and "ba"; and he recognises and responds to his own name.

Milestones in Young Toddlers: 12 to 24 Months

Young toddlers begin to express more interest in other children as well as adults. They do not play together interactively, but they enjoy parallel play, in which two toddlers play the same game side-by-side. By the age of 24 months, a toddler will enjoy pretend play, in which she will imitate actions that she sees adults do, such as feeding a baby doll and putting it to bed using the same routine her parents use for her own bedtime. She is also beginning to speak and uses sentences of at least two words. She is beginning to develop empathy and may enjoy giving another child a turn to play with a toy.

Milestones in Older Toddlers: 24 to 26 Months

During the second year of life, toddlers become much more interested in interacting with peers and in pretend play. By the age of 3, a toddler will enjoy interactive pretend play with peers in which each child takes on an imaginary role and together they develop stories and events. Three-year-olds are also able to talk clearly about events as well as their own emotions and desires. They will often explore feelings and emotions about events in their lives through imaginary play.

Ways to Encourage Social and Emotional Development

Caregivers can help babies develop socially from birth by responding to their communication and needs. Careful observation will help a caregiver respond to what a baby is communicating, which fosters further communication. Allowing opportunities for give-and-take communication also encourages social development. Even young babies enjoy interactions in which the adult communicates with a few words or an expression and then waits for the child to respond with a similar communication. For young babies, this interaction lays the foundation for learning conversation skills. Toddlers learn social skills like sharing and empathy when their caregivers provide modelling, guidance and direction. For example, 1-year-olds can learn to take turns if an adult supervises the length of the turns and helps them pass the toy back and forth so each child can play. Caregivers can encourage empathy in older toddlers by pointing out how other children feel and talking about emotions. Caregivers can also help infants and toddlers identify their own emotions by providing words for talking about feelings and expressing verbally what emotion the child is demonstrating.

Ways to Respond to Social and Emotional Challenges

The way that caregivers interact with infants and toddlers help children of all ages learn healthy social and emotional interactions. Babies and young toddlers often act in ways that are socially inappropriate because they have not yet learnt appropriate ways to interact; caregivers can respond by modelling appropriate behaviour and by gently redirecting the child's actions. For example, if a baby is hitting the dog, the adult can say, "Pat gently," and gently take the baby's hand and demonstrate how to pet the dog. Verbal instructions are more effective when they are phrased in a positive rather than a negative way ("pat gently" rather than "don't hit"). As toddlers begin to learn to play with other children, caregivers can prevent problems by watching carefully for potential altercations and by intervening if necessary. For example, if a parent sees her child trying to take a toy from another child, she can step in and encourage her child to wait for a turn.

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