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Social & Emotional Development for Infants (Birth - 12 Months)

baby laying in grass

Social & Emotional Development for Infants (Birth - 12 Months)

dad on couch holding and reading to baby
Watching your baby grow and change in this first year is very exciting. You can see some changes, like outgrowing an outfit, starting to coo or babble, or learning to crawl. Your baby is also growing in other ways that aren’t as easy to spot, but are just as important.

Things like smiling and responding to you, making eye contact or calming down when held by a familiar adult are all social and emotional milestones that most babies express and explore by a certain age.

During this first year, your baby will form special bonds with caring adults, explore the world around them by touching, looking and engaging within safe spaces with caregivers.  They will also learn more about emotions by watching you, sharing a smile and calming with your help.  

baby smiling with multicolored blanket on head
moms kissing baby

Just as it’s important for babies to be healthy physically, it’s also important for your baby to be healthy socially and emotionally. These skills help them make friends as they get older, learn how to express emotions in safe ways and take initiative to problem-solve and succeed in school and life.

How You Can Help Your Baby's Social and Emotional Development

How do you know your baby is on track for social and emotional development? While every baby grows at their own pace, we have developed materials through the Steps initiative to guide you on what skills you might expect as your little one develops, and what to do if you think your baby is not achieving milestones. 

Get Steps Family Tool Kit

Infant Social and Emotional Checklists

4 to 6 Months

Your baby will enjoy trying to copy your expressions and learn how to respond to people this way. Make a silly face, give a big smile, or raise your eyebrows and encourage your baby to do the same.

Babies start to notice things that are happening around them now and want to be a part of the action. Share one-on-one time with your baby and let them touch your face and copy your facial expressions. Share a laugh during bath time or snuggle in as you read a book to them. Respond to your baby’s reactions with joy and calm so they learn that their behavior has meaning and you are there to support them.

7 to 9 Months

You may notice that your baby is fearful of strangers, or loud noises or new situations. That’s completely normal. Offer comfort and explore slowly together, letting your baby know you are there. They will develop curiosity and learn explore in safe ways, which will help do the same in new situations as they develop and grow.

Play games together, like peek-a-boo, to help your baby explore back and forth interaction and shared emotions.

9 to 12 MONTHS

Now your baby is starting to recognize some words, even if they can’t say them yet. This lays a foundation for learning to express themselves and you can help them make the connection between words and feelings. When your baby laughs, talk about being happy. When your baby cries because the toys are being put away, talk about being sad that play time is over.

Your baby is forming a strong bond with familiar caregivers and at this stage tends to have favorite toys and people. At this time, your baby might want one toy over another, or prefer bananas to carrots. You can help baby’s growing confidence by offering choices—which of these two toys do you want? Do you want the ball or the book?

This is also an age where your baby may like to hand you things, repeat sounds that you make and cry when you leave. Leave time during daily routines to connect, “mommy’s cooking dinner, can you give me the big spoon?” or “Grandma can hear you waking up, I am on my way to get you.”


Right from birth, babies look for comfort and support from caregivers. At first, that means holding your baby, rocking, and cuddling to help create a bond. Your baby is learning to trust someone to take care of their needs.

When your baby is fussy or crying, respond with warmth and kindness so your baby learns their needs will be met consistently and with care. You’ll show them how to safely get their needs met, how a loving relationship works, and how to get along with others.

As your baby becomes more alert and aware, make eye contact often. Talk to your baby as if they could talk back, with natural conversational pauses and lots of facial expression. They will learn the rhythm of communication, and how to tell someone’s emotions from seeing expressions. Talk about the emotions as you see them, “Your eyebrows are up and you have a big smile, you are happy!” This way your baby can hear these important words early.


Social and emotional development impacts your child’s health, happiness and ability to learn and succeed in their school years and beyond. Learn how to support them on this learning journey.

Get Social and Emotional Tips

More Resources for Parents

Visit Zero To Three

Learn what you can do to support social-emotional development in your baby from

Get Relationship Tips

Find tips for helping your child build strong relationships from

Get Social and Emotional Health Guide

Find tips for families who want to help children to be socially and emotionally healthy in Social and Emotional Health: A Guide for Families with Children Birth to Age 8.

Visit Pathways Social and Emotional

Learn about social-emotional skills and how to encourage your baby’s development from