Related to
Early Years

Written by Kate Dent Rennie

Humans are social creatures. Their social skills and capabilities begin to develop very early in life. In the first year of life the baby builds relationships with other humans that help them survive and thrive.

In Part One of this series we explored the development of some of baby’s social capacities, which begin in the first days and weeks after birth. He/she develops the ability to differentiate people by their face, voice and smell. Infants smile more when touch is combined with an interactive face reaction. They also learn to regulate their arousal levels by engaging and disengaging during face-to-face interactions.

In Part Two we explored how very early in life babies develop a sense of themselves as separate to others, and that they actively learn how to interact with their environment and their parents/caregivers. In this final piece, we will explore some of the more complex developments including perception of time, space, connections between objects and reading emotion. We will finish by looking at what babies cannot do and the important role of their parent or primary caregiver.

1. What Babies Can Do

1.1 Perception of Time

Infants are born able to perceive time and estimate durations accurately. For example, the fact that they are able to modify the duration of the pauses between their sucking bursts to control the playing of music1 implies a capacity for estimating time. At 3 months of age, infants are able to perceive durations and anticipate when events in a regular sequence will occur.

They detect irregularities in the timing of the sequence of as little as 200 milliseconds (one fifth of a second).2 This capacity for perceiving time and estimating durations is used by infants to time their own and another person’s behaviour in face-to-face interactions. These interactions involve split second sequences of actions and reactions, where each is modifying the duration times of their own sounds & silences in co-ordination with the other and responding to the other in half a second or less.3 Heightened responsiveness to infant cues may be a prerequisite for “parental sensitivity” and attunement with the infant’s needs. This attunement is a key part of human social interactions and relationship development.4 

By 3 to 4 months, infants are engaging in mother-infant vocal & facial-visual communication with similar rhythm-matching to that of adult dialogues.5

1.2 Awareness of Space

Infants are born with remarkable spatial perception. They can locate the source of a sound in space and even in the first weeks of life, will take evasive action (ducking their head or holding up their hands) to avoid being hit by an object travelling towards their head.6

At 3-4 months, infants understand that objects are permanent i.e. they continue to exist when hidden, and are solid. By 4 months, infants distinguish between objects that move of their own accord and those that move because they have been made to move.7 

The early understanding infants have of the spatial structure of objects and their trajectories in space, and of the nature of solid objects enables them to participate in fast and complex patterns of movement during social interactions, such as approach and avoidance.8 

1.3 Understanding Emotions

From birth, infants are able to perceive and express emotion, as shown by facial expressions. Newborn infants can discriminate surprise, fear and sadness on an adult’s face and can imitate these expressions so accurately that you can guess the adult’s expression by looking at the baby’s face alone.9 

By 10-12 months of age, infants use their ability to read emotion on their caregiver’s face to help them make sense of novel things in their environment – a capacity called “social referencing.”10 By 10 months of age, differential lateralisation of the brain’s hemispheres for emotional processes appears to be established, with the infant’s brain being activated for positive emotion (predominantly in the left frontal lobes) when he/she sees positive emotion in another person.11

1.4 Interpreting and translating the world

From the first weeks of life, babies have the ability to translate information perceived via one sense to another.12 For example, newborns can match the expression on an adult model’s face, which they experience visually, with an expression on their own face, which they experience by proprioception.13 At 3 weeks of age, infants can recognise that a bumpy pacifier bulb that they have felt inside their mouth matches the bumpy object that they can see in front of them.14 

In the second half of the first year of a baby’s life, attuned caregivers often take advantage of the baby’s capacity to translate information by using behaviours that adapt their feeling states and match them in rhythm, duration and intensity, letting the infant know that they are sharing the same emotional experience.15 

2. What Babies Cannot Do

Apart from infants’ rudimentary ability to regulate their level of arousal by choosing what to look at and self-soothing with sucking and touching, they are born largely unable to regulate either their physiological or their emotional states.

2.1 Physiological Regulation

Mothers provide infants with the basic physiological regulation that keeps them alive. Her body keeps him warm, her milk feeds him and provides immune protection,16 and her touch regulates his growth hormones and stress hormones.17 In the early months of an infant’s life, the main role of caregivers is to support physiological regulation, assisting him to make smooth transitions between states e.g. from tired to asleep, from hungry to satiated, from uncomfortable to comfortable, from fussy and over-aroused to calm and alert.18 

2.2 Emotion Regulation

The human stress response system is ‘in place’ very early. In the brain, the amygdala which specialises in appraising danger and is involved in emotional memory and activating the fight-flight response is largely mature by 8 months’ gestation.19 This means that newborn infants (and even unborn infants) have a well-developed capacity for recognising dangerous situations and experiencing fear. At the same time, the frontal lobes, which are involved in inhibiting fear, do not develop until much later. Hence young infants are particularly vulnerable to experiencing fear, with very little ability to self soothe.20

Parents of young infants therefore have many opportunities to support regulation of distress. They do this by appearing to join the infant in his distress state – using facial expression, tone of voice and gestures to mirror the infant’s emotional experience, but often doing so in an exaggerated way, thereby “marking” their communication as not an expression of their own true feelings.21 From ‘joining’ the infant in his distress, the sensitive parent then gradually ‘leads’ his/her baby back to a calmer state by slowly dropping their volume, slowing their pace and calming their voice.22 The parent guides the baby back to a regulated state, and in doing so, is coaching his nervous system establishing the neural pathways for regulation. You can say that the baby “borrows” the parent’s prefrontal cortex and uses it as a model for his own developing brain.23 

However, it’s not just through experiences of getting upset and being comforted by a caregiver that an infant’s brain circuitry for regulation is being established. Research into mother-infant interactions (conducted by microanalysis of sequences of behaviour between mothers and their babies) has found that, in all of their ordinary, everyday interactions both mother and infant are engaged in a complex, synchronised “dance” of mutual regulation. In this “dance” they are reacting to and adjusting to each other, on a moment-by-moment basis, both affecting each other (“interactive regulation”) and managing their own states of attention and arousal (“self-regulation”).24 In these day-to-day interactions, although they occur outside the conscious awareness of either mother or baby, patterns of co-ordination and regulation are being learned by the infant. In recent research, the patterns established by 4 months of age have been found to predict attachment at 12 months.25 

Allan Schore has emphasised the same point – that “the same interactions (interactive regulatory transactions) that co-create a secure attachment bond also influence the development and expansion of the infant’s regulatory systems, involved in appraising and coping with stress.” He concludes that “attachment can be defined as the dyadic regulation of emotion. Attachment theory is, in essence, a regulatory theory.”26


Infants are born with an impressive array of social capabilities. However, they are born largely unable to regulate either their physiological or their emotional states. Infants require a great deal of support through the early years, from parents, to regulate their physiological and emotional states. The patterns of emotion regulation that infants learn with parents become established in their neural circuits. These form a key part of their future emotional and social functioning.

  1. DeCasper & Carstens, 1981
  2. Haith et al., 1988
  3. Jaffe et al., 2001
  4. Parsons et al., 2010
  5. Beebe & Lachmann, 2002
  6. Bower et al., 1970
  7. Mandler, 1988
  8. Beebe & Lachmann, 2002
  9. Field et al., 1982; Meltzoff & Moore, 1977
  10. Klinnert, 1984; Sorce et al., 1985
  11. Davidson & Fox, 1982
  12. Stern, 1985
  13. Meltzoff & Moore, 1977
  14. Meltzoff & Borton, 1979
  15. Beebe & Lachmann, 2002; Stern, 1985
  16. Oddy, 2001
  17. Polan & Hofer, 2008
  18. Sroufe, 1995
  19. Ono et al., 1995; Phelps & Anderson, 1997; Ulfig et al., 2003
  20. Cozolino, 2007
  21. Beebe, 2003; Gergely & Watson, 1999
  22. Beebe, 2003
  23. Cozolino, 2006
  24. Beebe & Lachmann, 2002
  25. Beebe et al., 2010; Beebe et al., 2012
  26. Schore, 2001, p. 14

Beebe, B. & Lachmann, F.M. (2002). Infant Research and Adult Treatment: Co-constructing interactions. London, UK: The Analytic Press.

Beebe, B. (2003). Brief mother-infant treatment: Psychoanalytically informed video feedback. Infant Mental Health Journal, 24(1), 24-52.

Beebe, B., Jaffe, J., Markese, S., Buck, K., Chen, H., Cohen, P., Bahrick, L., Andrews, H. & Feldstein, S. (2010). The origins of 12-month attachment: A microanalysis of 4-month mother-infant interaction. Attachment & Human Development, 12(1-2), 3-141.

Beebe, B., Lachmann, F., Markese, S. & Bahrick, L. (2012). On the origins of disorganised attachment and internal working models: Paper I. A dyadic systems approach. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 22, 253-272.

Bower, T.G.R., Broughton, J.M. & Moore, M K. (1970). Infant responses to approaching objects: An indicator of response to distal variables. Perception & Psychophysics, 9(2B), 193-196.

Cozolino, L.J. (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. New York, NY: WW Norton.

Cozolino, L.J. (2007). The Neuroscience of Change. Presented at Family Ties Attachment and Family Therapy Conference, February 2007, Auckland, NZ.

DeCasper, A.J. & Carstens. (1981). Contingencies of stimulation: Effects on learning and emotion in neonates. Infant Behavior and Development, 4, 19-35.

Davidson, R. J., & Fox, N. A. (1982). Asymmetrical brain activity discriminates between positive and negative affective stimuli in human infants. Science, 218, 1235-1237. 

Field, T.M., Woodson, R., Greenberg, R. & Cohen, D. (1982). Discrimination and imitation of facial expressions by neonates. Science, 218(4568), 179-181.

Gergely, G. & Watson, J. (1999). Chapter 5. Early socio-emotional development: Contingency perception and the social-biofeedback model. In P Rochat (Ed.) Early social cognition: Understanding others in the first months of life. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Haith, M. M., Hazan, C. & Goodman, G.S. (1988). Expectation and anticipation of dynamic visual events by 3.5-month-old babies. Child Development, 59(2), 467-479.

Jaffe, J., Beebe, B., Feldstein, S., Crown, C.L., Jasnow, M.D., Rochat, P. & Stern, D.N. (2001). Rhythms of dialogue in infancy: Coordinated timing in development. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 66(2), 1-149.

Klinnert, M.D. (1984). The regulation of infant behavior by maternal facial expression. Infant Behavior and Development, 7(4), 447-465.

Mandler, J.M. (1988). How to build a baby: On the development of an accessible representational system. Cognitive Development, 3,113-136.

Meltzoff, A.N. & Borton, R.W. (1979). Intermodal matching by human neonates. Nature, 282(5737), 403-404.

Meltzoff, A.N. & Moore. M.K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198(4312), 75-78.

Oddy, W.H. (2001). Breastfeeding protects against illness and infection in infants and children: a review of the evidence. Breastfeeding Review, 9(2), 11-18.

Ono, T., Nishijo, H. & Uwano, T. (1995). Amygdala role in conditioned associative learning. Progress in Neurobiology, 46(4), 401-422.

Parsons, C. E., Young, K. S., Murray, L., Stein, A., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2010). The functional neuranatomy of the evolving parent-infant relationship. Progress in Neurobiology, 91(3), 220 – 241. 

Phelps, E.A. & Anderson, A.K. (1997). Emotional memory: What does the amygdala do? Current Biology, 7, R311-R314.

Polan, H.J. & Hofer, M.A. (2008). Psychobiological origins of infant attachment and its role in development. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications (2nd ed.,pp.158-172). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Schore, A.N. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22(1-2), 7-66.

Sorce, J.F., Emde, R.N., Campos, J. & Klinnert, M.D. (1985). Maternal emotional signalling: Its effect on the visual cliff behavior of 1-year-olds. Developmental Psychology, 21(1), 195-200.

Sroufe, A. (1995). Emotional Development, the Organisation of Emotional Life in the Early Years. Cambridge University Press.

Stern D.N. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Ulfig, N., Setzer, M. & Bohl, J. (2003). Ontogeny of the human amygdala. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 985, 22-33.