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Building a Healthy Foundation




Building a Healthy Foundation:
Social and Emotional Development in Infants and Toddlers

The caregiver’s role is vital to helping infants and toddlers establish a solid social and emotional foundation. Social and emotional development includes an infant and toddler’s growing ability to:

1) Regulate and express emotions;
2) Explore new environments; and
3) Form close relationships with caregivers.

Social and emotional development not only impacts all other areas of growth and development, it is the foundation that all future development is built on. What we give infants and toddlers today, they will carry inside themselves forever.

In our concern for children’s academic success, it is beneficial to be mindful of the role that social/emotional development plays in this area. Social and emotional development sets the “playing field” for school readiness and lifelong success. Research shows that children who have healthy social and emotional skills tend to learn better, are more likely to stay in school, and will be better able to make and keep lifelong friends.
The caregiver’s most important task in helping guide infants and toddlers along in their quest for healthy development, is to understand how to recognize and respond to a young child’s cues and messages.

For babies and toddlers to develop social and emotional well-being, they need the support of adults. “Babies need gentle touching, holding and eye contact, just as they need food to grow and develop. Studies show that a nurturing touch actually helps many babies gain weight and develop healthy relationships with caregivers.” 1

Social and emotional skills can be observed over time. As children grow, many of their developing skills can be seen and heard. Following is information that may help caregivers recognize some social and emotional developmental cues and skills of infants and toddlers.

Young infants:
• Cry, coo and smile
• Look at faces
• Quiet when picked up
• Seek comfort
• Show excitement

Mobile infants:

• Explore with enthusiasm
• Are curious about other people
• React to changes in daily routine
• Laugh out loud
• Enjoy books, songs and simple games


• Show shyness in unfamiliar places
• Smile and laugh
• Begin to show feelings for others
• Are playful with others
• Express many feelings such as, sadness, happiness, being frightened, and/or angry

Infants and toddlers simply cannot create bright futures without you! Here are some tips for promoting social and emotional health from infancy on (additional authorship by Kathleen Baltman):

1) Gently hold and cuddle children often.

2) Enrich children’s daily routines such as meal, bath, and nap times, by sharing looks, smiles, conversations, and stories.

3) Attentively respond to children’s attempts to communicate with you through facial expressions, gestures, cooing, babbling, and words. Gently mirror their sounds and expressions.

4) Take time to follow a child’s lead. Join them in floor-time play, and talk with them about their activities whenever possible. 

5) Gently guide children through social situations: Babies love to look at other babies. Toddlers and preschoolers learn to socialize through practice and experiences that are supported by caring adults.

6) Be a positive role model: Offer children opportunities to observe you being a kind and caring person.  

7) Help children learn a variety of words to fully express their feelings.

8) Comment on the positive things that children do.



Zero to Three, parent tip of the week for social and emotional development:

Helpful Resources

Social and Emotional Development in Young Children, A Guide developed by the Michigan Department of Community Health can be downloaded at:

Baby Stages, a Parent’s and Caregiver’s Guide to the Social and Emotional Development of Infants and Toddlers is a developmental wheel that can be ordered for $1.00 plus shipping and handling by contacting Deborah Kahraman at: Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health, 13101 Allen Road, Southgate, MI 48195 Phone : 734-785-7700, ext. 7194, or by e-mail at

Article By: Judy Ann Darling, MSW, CSW, e-mail: and Mary Mackrain, M.Ed, Originally published in the Devereux Early Childhood Newsletter, Winter 2005 edition, available for download from Republished here with the approval of the authors.



Idaho CareLine: In Idaho, Dial 2-1-1 or 800-926-2588