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Babies really can sense when Mom is having a bad day

My daughter looked over at me, gauging what my reaction would be to her sticking her finger in the ever-tempting outlet on our wall.

“No, you don’t,” I cautioned her, a warning tone in my voice.

Looking directly at me, she lifted one chubby finger and went for it anyways. “No!” I said sharply to her. At my sharp response, her little chin started quivering and her eyes filled with tears.

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There’s no doubt about it, our babies are tuned in to our emotions. But a new study shows that they are more aware of their parents’ emotions than we may even realize. According to a study in Science Direct, babies respond to their caregivers when those caregivers express obvious signs of sadness, such as crying, but they also are able to pick up on when their parents are holding back their emotions.

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The study paired babies with actors who had a “negative event” happen to them, such as having a ball taken away, and then looked at how babies responded when the actors expressed overt sadness or stoicism after the negative event.

The highlights from the study included:

  • Infants responded more to actors that acted “sad” instead of neutral
  • Both neutral and sad emotions are about equal to babies
  • Infants are sensitive to emotional expressions after negative events

Interestingly enough, the study’s lead researcher, Sabrina Chiarella, has been looking at the association between how a baby picks up on the emotions of the adults around him or her and how those reactions develop trust.

For example, her previous research found that when an adult act happy after a “sad” event, the baby learns not to trust that person. But in this new study, the babies were somehow able to realize that not showing obvious signs of sadness didn’t mean the adult wasn’t still sad. Even as early as 18 months old, the babies realized that not acting sad didn’t mean the adult wasn’t sad and still offered “help” and empathetic gestures, such as handing the actors a teddy bear in act of condolence.

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So what does all of this mean? “These findings represent an important contribution to research on the emergence of selective trust during infancy,” the authors concluded. Or, in other words, how we teach our infants to respond through our own emotions has a big impact — even at a very young age.

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