7 Emotional Development in Infancy and Toddlerhood

Chapter Objectives

After this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe the continuum of development of emotional skills in infants and toddlers.
  • Classify types of temperament and explain the concept of “goodness of fit”.
  • Explain the difference between temperament and personality.
  • Discuss the roles of culture and gender in emotional development.


During the first three years of life, children are developing the ability to express and regulate their emotions. They are in the process of developing a sense of self. The ability to see things from another’s perspective (empathy) is beginning to emerge. Let’s look at this continuum of development in more detail.

Continuum of Development

The Continuum of Development set out in Early Learning for Every Child Today: A framework for Ontario early childhood settings (2007) identifies several root emotional skills that are emerging in children from birth to approximately 3 years of age (Ontario MInistry of Education, 2014).

Infants (birth to 24 months of age) can express a wide range of basic emotions including: discomfort, pleasure, anger, fear, sadness and excitement. As we learned in Chapter 6, infants are developing attachments to primary caregivers and may show some anxiety when separated from the important adults in their lives. Infants have strategies to comfort themselves (e.g. thumb sucking) which helps them recover from stressful situations. Infants are beginning to develop a sense of self as they become more aware of their ability to make things happen. Older infants will notice when someone else appears upset and may offer some sort of comfort.

Toddlers start to experience and express more complex, self-conscious emotions such as shame, guilt and pride. While infants use physical strategies for self-soothing, toddlers are starting to use language to help regulate their emotions. They are also beginning to regulate their behaviour by following verbal cues from others. Toddlers still find it challenging to pay attention without being easily distracted. Awareness of how someone else might be feeling is improving. Toddlers have a strong sense of self and need for autonomy, often manifested with a strong “No” when asked to do something.

Infant Toddler Emotions

At birth, infants exhibit two emotional responses: attraction and withdrawal. They show attraction to pleasant situations that bring comfort, stimulation, and pleasure, and they withdraw from unpleasant stimulation such as bitter flavours or physical discomfort. At around two months, infants exhibit social engagement in the form of social smiling as they respond with smiles to those who engage their positive attention (Lavelli & Fogel, 2005, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).

Social smiling becomes more stable and organized as infants learn to use their smiles to engage their parents in interactions. Pleasure is expressed as laughter at 3 to 5 months of age, and displeasure becomes more specific as fear, sadness, or anger between ages 6 and 8 months.

Anger is often the reaction to being prevented from obtaining a goal, such as a toy being removed (Braungart-Rieker, Hill-Soderlund, & Karrass, 2010, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson). In contrast, sadness is typically the response when infants are deprived of a caregiver (Papousek, 2007). Fear is often associated with the presence of a stranger, known as stranger wariness, or the departure of significant others known as separation anxiety. Both appear sometime between 6 and 15 months after object permanence has been acquired. Further, there is some indication that infants may experience jealousy as young as 6 months of age (Hart & Carrington, 2002, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).

toddler making an angry face

Figure 7.1: A toddler making an angry facial expression. (Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash)

Emotions are often divided into two general categories: Basic emotions (primary emotions), such as interest, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, sadness and disgust, which appear first and self-conscious emotions (secondary emotions), such as envy, pride, shame, guilt, doubt, and embarrassment. Unlike primary emotions, secondary emotions appear as children start to develop a self-concept and require social instruction on when to feel such emotions. The situations in which children learn self-conscious emotions varies from culture to culture. Individualistic cultures teach us to feel pride in personal accomplishment, while in more collective cultures children are taught to not call attention to themselves, unless you wish to feel embarrassed for doing so (Akimoto & Sanbinmatsu, 1999, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).

sad looking child being physically comforted by an adult

Figure 7.2: A sad looking child seeking comfort from an adult. (Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash)

Facial expressions of emotion are important regulators of social interaction. In the developmental literature, this concept has been investigated under the concept of social referencing; that is, the process whereby infants seek out information from others to clarify a situation and then use that information to act (Klinnert, Campos, & Sorce, 1993, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). To date, the strongest demonstration of social referencing comes from work on the visual cliff. In the first study to investigate this concept, Capos and colleagues (Sorce, Emde, Campos, & Klinnert, 1985, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021) placed mothers on the far end of the “cliff” from the infant. Mothers first smiled to the infants and placed a toy on top of the safety glass to attract them; infants invariably began crawling to their mothers. When the infants were in the centre of the table, however, the mother then posed an expression of fear, sadness, anger, interest, or joy. The results were clearly different for the different faces; no infant crossed the table when the mother showed fear; only 6% did when the mother posed anger, 33% crossed when the mother posed sadness, and approximately 75% of the infants crossed when the mother posed joy or interest.

Other studies provide similar support for facial expressions as regulators of social interaction. Researchers posed facial expressions of neutral, anger, or disgust toward babies as they moved toward an object and measured the amount of inhibition the babies showed in touching the object (Bradshaw, 1986, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). The results for 10- and 15-month olds were the same: Anger produced the greatest inhibition, followed by disgust, with neutral the least. This study was later replicated using joy and disgust expression, altering the method so that the infants were not allowed to touch the toy (compared with a distractor object) until one hour after exposure to the expression (Hertenstein & Campos, 2004, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). At 14 months of age, significantly more infants touched the toy when they saw joyful expressions, but fewer touched the toy when the infants saw disgust.

A significant emotional change is in self-regulation. Emotional self-regulation refers to strategies we use to control our emotional states so that we can attain goals (Thompson & Goodvin, 2007, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). This requires effortful control of emotions and initially requires assistance from caregivers (Rothbart, Posner, & Kieras, 2006, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). Young infants have very limited capacity to adjust their emotional states and depend on their caregivers to help soothe them. Caregivers can offer distractions to redirect the infant’s attention and comfort to reduce the emotional distress. As areas of the infant’s prefrontal cortex continue to develop, infants can tolerate more stimulation. By 4 to 6 months, babies can begin to shift their attention away from upsetting stimuli (Rothbart et al, 2006). Older infants and toddlers can more effectively communicate their need for help and can crawl or walk toward or away from various situations (Cole, Armstrong, & Pemberton, 2010, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). This aids in their ability to self-regulate. Temperament also plays a role in children’s ability to control their emotional states, and individual differences have been noted in the emotional self-regulation of infants and toddlers (Rothbart & Bates, 2006, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).

Canadian researcher Dr. Stuart Shanker has written extensively about the young child’s emerging ability to self-regulate. He defines self-regulation as “how efficiently and effectively a child deals with a stressor and then recovers” (Shanker, 2013). We start laying the foundation for development of this skill when we use calming strategies with a newborn baby. As the prefrontal cortex grows, the social engagement between adult and child becomes more complex. Toddlers begin to develop the language skills (expressive and receptive) needed for self-regulation. Shanker believes that, instead of rewarding or punishing children in order to get them to do what we want, we must help with the development of self-regulation skills by:

  1. identifying the underlying stressor or stressors,
  2. reducing those stressors, and
  3. teaching children strategies for calming themselves.

Rewards and punishment may temporarily result in a change in a child’s behaviour, but they have little long-term effect because they do not address why the child is displaying the undesired behaviour (Shanker, 2013).

Development of sense of self: During the second year of life, children begin to recognize themselves as they gain a sense of self as separate from their primary caregiver. In a classic experiment by Lewis and Brooks (1978) children 9 to 24 months of age were placed in front of a mirror after a spot of rouge was placed on their nose as their mothers pretended to wipe something off the child’s face. If the child reacted by touching their own nose rather than that of the ‘baby “in the mirror, it was taken to suggest that the child recognized the reflection as themself. Lewis and Brooks found that somewhere between 15 and 24 months most infants developed a sense of self-awareness. Self-awareness is the realization that you are separate from others (Kopp, 2011, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). Once a child has achieved self-awareness, the child is moving toward understanding social emotions such as guilt, shame or embarrassment, as well as sympathy or empathy (Lally & Valentine-French, 2019).


Perhaps you have spent time with a number of infants. How were they alike? How did they differ? How do you compare with your siblings or other children you have known well? You may have noticed that some seemed to be in a better mood than others and that some were more sensitive to noise or more easily distracted than others. These differences may be attributed to temperament. Temperament is the innate characteristics of the infant, including mood, activity level, and emotional reactivity, noticeable soon after birth.
In a 1956 landmark study, Chess and Thomas (1996, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021) evaluated 141 children’s temperament based on parental interviews. In what is referred to as the New York Longitudinal Study, infants were assessed on 10 dimensions of temperament including:

Activity level

  • Rhythmicity (regularity of biological functions)
  • Approach/withdrawal (how children deal with new things)
  • Adaptability to situations
  • Intensity of reactions
  • Threshold of responsiveness (how intense a stimulus has to be for the child to react)
  • Quality of mood
  • Distractibility
  • Attention span
  • Persistence

Based on the infants’ behavioral profiles, they were categorized into three general types of temperament:


Type Percentage       Description 
Easy 40%
  • Able to quickly adapt to routine and new situations
  • Remains calm
  • Easy to soothe
  • Usually in positive mood
Difficult  10%
  • Reacts negatively to new situations
  • Has trouble adapting to routine
  • Usually negative in mood
  • Cries frequently
Slow-to-warm-up 15%
  • Low activity level
  • Adjusts slowly to new situations
  • Often negative in mood

Table 7.1 Types of Temperament (Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021)

Goodness of Fit

The term ‘goodness of fit” is used to describe the degree to which a child’s characteristics match the demands of their environment and the people in it.  For example, if a very active toddler lives in a small apartment, the restricted environment is at odds with the child’s high need for physical activity. An example of a mismatch between a child’s characteristics and a parents’ would be a very calm parent who has a child who experiences emotions intensely.  A mismatch between a child’s characteristics, the environment and/or the child’s primary caregivers can create stress and conflict for both the child and the caregivers. Responsive caregivers who accurately read the child will enjoy a goodness-of-fit, meaning their styles match and communication and interaction can flow.

A good match is more likely to result in the child being successful. Success contributes to the development of healthy self-esteem.

A characteristic displayed by a child, in and of itself, is not good or bad. It is the interaction between the characteristic and the child’s environment that is critical to the child’s emotional development. Caring and responsive adults respect the child’s characteristics and assess themselves and the child’s environment to determine what could be changed to ensure a better match.

As can be seen in Table 7.1, the percentages of types of temperament do not equal 100% as some children were not able to be placed neatly into one of the categories. Think about how each type of child should be approached to improve interactions with them. An easy child requires less intervention, but still has needs that must not be overlooked. A slow-to-warm-up child may need to be given advance warning if new people or situations are going to be introduced. A child with a difficult temperament may need to be given extra time to burn off their energy. Caregivers who recognize each child’s temperament and accept it, will nurture more effective interactions with the child and encourage more adaptive functioning (Lally & Valentine-French, 2019).

adult and child walking in the woods

Figure 7.3: Goodness of Fit: Parent matches child’s adventurous activity level of their temperament. (Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash)

Parenting is Bidirectional

Not only do parents affect their children, children influence their parents. A child’s characteristics, such as temperament, affect parenting behaviours and roles. For example, an infant with an easy temperament may enable parents to feel more effective, as they are easily able to soothe the child and elicit smiling and cooing. On the other hand, a cranky or fussy infant elicits fewer positive reactions from their parents and may result in parents feeling less effective in the parenting role (Eisenberg et al., 2008, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). Over time, parents of more difficult children may become more punitive and less patient with their children (Clark, Kochanska, & Ready, 2000; Eisenberg et al., 1999; Kiff, Lengua, & Zalewski, 2011, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). Parents who have a fussy, difficult child are less satisfied with their marriages and have greater challenges in balancing work and family roles (Hyde, Else-Quest, & Goldsmith, 2004, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). Thus, child temperament is one of the child characteristics that influence how parents behave with their children.


Temperament does not change dramatically as we grow up, but we may learn how to work around and manage our temperamental qualities. Temperament may be one of the things about us that stays the same throughout development. In contrast, personality, defined as an individual’s consistent pattern of feeling, thinking, and behaving, is the result of the continuous interplay between biological disposition and experience.

Personality also develops from temperament in other ways (Thompson, Winer, & Goodvin, 2010, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). As children mature biologically, temperamental characteristics emerge and change over time. A newborn is not capable of much self-control, but as brain-based capacities for self-control advance, temperamental changes in self-regulation become more apparent. For example, a newborn who cries frequently doesn’t necessarily have a grumpy personality; over time, with sufficient parental support and increased sense of security, the child might be less likely to cry.

In addition, personality is made up of many other features besides temperament. Children’s developing self-concept, their motivations to achieve or to socialize, their values and goals, their coping styles, their sense of responsibility and conscientiousness, as well as many other qualities are encompassed into personality. These qualities are influenced by biological dispositions, but even more by the child’s experiences with others, particularly in close relationships, that guide the growth of individual characteristics. Indeed, personality development begins with the biological foundations of temperament but becomes increasingly elaborated, extended, and refined over time. The newborn that parents gazed upon thus becomes an adult with a personality of depth and nuance (Lally & Valentine-French, 2019).

Cultural and Gender Variations

Within a culture there are norms and behavioural expectations. These cultural norms can dictate which personality traits are considered important. The researcher Gordon Allport considered culture to be an important influence on traits and defined common traits as those that are recognized within a culture. These traits may vary from culture to culture based on differing values, needs, and beliefs. Positive and negative traits can be determined by cultural expectations: what is considered a positive trait in one culture may be considered negative in another, thus resulting in different expressions of personality across cultures.

non Western family including mother, father and child

Figure 7.4: A family from a non-Western culture. (Photo by Ivan Andriavani on Unsplash)

Considering cultural influences on personality is important because Western ideas and theories are not necessarily applicable to other cultures (Benet-Martinez & Oishi, 2008, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). There is a great deal of evidence that the strength of personality traits varies across cultures, and this is especially true when comparing individualist cultures (such as European, North American, and Australian cultures) and collectivist cultures (such as Indigenous, French, Asian, African, and South American cultures). People who live in individualist cultures tend to believe that independence, competition, and personal achievement are important. In contrast, people who live in collectivist cultures tend to value social harmony, respectfulness, and group needs over individual needs. These values influence personality in different but substantial ways; for example, Yang (2006, as cited by Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021) found that people in individualistic cultures displayed more personally-oriented personality traits, whereas people in collectivist cultures displayed more social-oriented personality traits (Lally & Valentine-French, 2019).

In much the same manner that cultural norms can influence personality and behavior, gender norms (the behaviours that males and females are expected to conform to in a given society) can also influence personality by emphasizing different traits between different genders.

Ideas of appropriate behaviour for each gender (masculine and feminine) vary among cultures and tend to change over time. For example, aggression and assertiveness have historically been emphasized as positive masculine personality traits in Western cultures. Meanwhile, submissiveness and caretaking have historically been held as ideal feminine traits. While many gender roles remain the same, others change over time. In 1938, for example, only 1 out of 5 Americans agreed that a married woman should earn money in industry or business. By 1996, however, 4 out of 5 Americans approved of women working in these fields. This type of attitude change has been accompanied by behaviour shifts that coincide with changes in trait expectations and shifts in personal identity for men and women (Lally & Valentine-French, 2019).

2 female toddlers dressed in pink looking at a book

Figure 7.4: Toddlers dressed in stereotypically Western feminine clothing. (Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash)

a male toddler wearing a blue hoodie, blue pants and blue shoes

Figure 7.5: A male toddler wearing stereotypically Western masculine clothing. (Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)


In this chapter we looked at:

  • The emotional developmental continuum for infants and toddlers
  • The development of emotions
  • Temperament and “goodness of fit”
  • Personality
  • Cultural and gender variations


Lally, M. & Valentine-French, S. (2019). Lifespan development: A psychological perspective (2nd ed.). Retrieved from http://dept.clcillinois.edu/psy/LifespanDevelopment.pdf

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2014). Excerpts from “Elect”. Retrieved from https://www.dufferincounty.ca/sites/default/files/rtb/Excerpts-from-Early-Learning-for-Every-Child-Today.pdf

Shanker, S. (2013). Calm, alert and happy. Retrieved from https://www.totallyawake4-life.com/Self%20Regulation%20Artcile%20Shanker.pdf


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Child Growth and Development Canadian Ed Copyright © 2022 by Tanya Pye; Susan Scoffin; Janice Quade; and Jane Krieg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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