Do Infants Understand Emotion?

From the moment of birth the infant’s brain is fully capable of processing emotion and this skill enables them to respond to all of the experiences in their environment.  Infants cry as they come into the world because they are aware of the change from the protective nest of the womb to the unfamiliar open-air vastness of the world outside of the womb.   They cry to announce that they are in danger.  They sense that their protective environment has been dramatically ripped away and they know that they need protection.  In this sense, you could also say that they are self aware as well as aware of their environment.  They are solely dependent beings and they need to draw attention to themselves for survival.  Unlike other mammals, they cannot find mother’s milk on their own or cling to their parent for attention.  Their voice is the mechanism that lets them announce their need in an effort to be protected and survive.  A well fed and clothed infant if abandoned outside of a church or police station will immediately begin to cry.  They sense that their significant other has left them and know that they must find other caretakers quickly or they will be in danger.

Most adults are unaware of the significance of this truth that infants are emotionally aware and respond to emotional tone and changes in the environment.  When Mom and Dad raise their voices, the infant starts to squirm and fuss as a signal that their protective environment is being threatened.  They also record these events and encode them in non-verbal ways.  Many parents think that an infant will have no memory of their fights or that the tension in the house will go completely unnoticed.  While the infant will have no language to describe the fight or the tension, they will none the less have a memory of the stress and they will be influenced by the tension in the house.

Often, these memories are called body memories as they are stored in terms of muscle tension, internal discomfort and visceral reactions to the emotion in the room.  When you experience parents with their infant, you have probably seen the infant’s response when tension exists between the parents.  Invariably, the infant will move and fuss and show signs of processing the tension in the environment.  They make efforts to shift the parent’s attention away from the conflict and toward the needs of the infant.  This is a valuable survival mechanism.    

Infants are emotional sponges because they are dependent on the external environment for their survival.  They need to be aware of danger or tension in the environment and to respond with discomfort in order to get their dependency needs met.  They are announcing that they need the adults in the room to be focused on them and not go out of control or to hyper-focus on themselves.  An angry adult will not be a safe caretaker and an anxious adult will likely miss important signals from the infant. 

Infants are excellent barometers of family harmony and tension.  The fussy infant is often announcing that there is something lacking in the caretaking they are experiencing.  Unfortunately, we rarely take the infant seriously.  Too often we placate the parents or normalize the fussing as just something that infants do.  If we used these signals as signs that the environment needs to change then we could focus on providing the emotional environment that will enable the infant to thrive. 

As a culture we have clearly focused on the physical nutrition necessary for a healthy baby.  Now we need to focus on the emotional environment that the infant needs to develop into an emotionally healthy child.