When do babies start to care about other people’s feelings?

What parent doesn’t love making their baby laugh? Not all laughs are created equal, though: it’s a lot more fun to make Baby laugh by making silly faces than it is to set off a fit of giggles by slipping, falling, and bashing an elbow into the corner of a table on your way down. No matter how great a sound Baby’s laughter is, there are certain situations where hearing it can kind of hurt your feelings.

Now, in the case of Baby’s case of the giggles over your slip-and-fall, there are a couple of different questions that come up. First, when will they develop a more sophisticated sense of humor? That one might take a while – there are people who never stop thinking slapstick humor is hilarious. The other question, though, ‘when will my baby start caring about my feelings?’ has a more complex answer.

The right ingredients

Caring about other people’s feelings might seem like it should be instinctive, but in reality, there are a few really important, complex ingredients that go into real caring. The fact that many children do start showing signs of empathy so young – some as early as a year old – only proves how fast young children grow and change.

A sense of self

Before Baby can care about how someone else feels, they have to understand what the idea of “someone else” is – that is, they need to develop the understanding of themself as an individual living in the world with other individuals. Some studies, including a 2013 study published in Current Biology, suggest that babies have some foundations for this sense of self as newborns, but other schools of thought suggest that a more solid sense of self often develops later, sometime between 6 months and a little over a year old, with the growing understanding of object permanence and a possible development of separation anxiety.

Understanding of emotions and cause and effect

An important step on Baby’s path towards caring about other people’s feelings is understanding what feelings are. Baby is still in the fairly early stages of learning how to talk, but that doesn’t make it too early to start talking to them about what they might be feeling based on what’s going on in their life, or what you might be feeling. More important than knowing the words for emotions, though, is understanding basic concepts of cause and effect, which babies start to pick up on their own as they continue to explore the world in different ways. Many babies start to become more interested in cause and effect in the second half of their first year, exploring by throwing things, dropping things, and playing with noise-making toys. Babies can start to show an instinct to mirror the emotions around them at a very early age – crying when they hear or see someone else crying, for example – but a more complicated concern for how someone might feel based on something that’s happened to them comes along with a more developed understanding of cause and effect.

A tendency towards kindness

While it’s true that kindness can develop under any conditions, it’s also true that young children learn the way to react from the people in their lives. If Baby sees concern for other people’s feelings, and for their own as a routine part of your family’s lives, they are much more likely to reflect that back in the way they act around other people, but this reflection back takes time to develop.

How to help Baby develop empathy

Baby is learning about empathy every day just by looking out at the world around them and the people in it, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways you can help them out on their way to a greater empathetic understanding.

  • Label feelings: For example, when something makes you sad, excited, angry, happy, or annoyed, tell Baby about it. Not just the feeling, either, but the reason for it. “I think we’re going to be late, and that makes me nervous.” Baby may not understand all of what you’re saying, but it’ll help them start to understand the framework of cause and effect when it comes to emotions. You can also offer them words for their own feelings (“Does it make you mad when I tell you it’s bath time?”) and speculate about other people’s feelings (“Do you think it makes Grandma happy when we call to tell her ‘happy birthday?’”). This will help with both giving Baby words for emotions and helping them draw connections between their own feelings and other people’s.
  • Model kindness: More important than the thing you say to Baby, though, is the way you and other people act around them. They are learning more and more every day, but you and the other important people in their life have a huge effect on what there is for them to learn. Treating Baby with courtesy and respect for their feelings, and letting them see you treat other people with that same kindness and respect can teach them a lot about how to be an empathetic person who thinks about other people’s feelings.
  • Don’t offer rewards: Some research suggests that people who are offered external rewards for good deeds, like charitable giving, can make those people less likely to want to do those good things, so offering Baby a reward for taking turns, or sharing nicely, could actually have the opposite effect before too long. More than that, though, an important part of caring about other people’s feelings comes from wanting to, and feeling that other people’s feelings are important, and that’s something that Baby can only find inside themself.

Babies grow and change every day, and their feelings and emotional reactions grow with them. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for when Baby will start caring about other people’s feelings, but there’s a good chance they'll get there sometime between a year and 3 years old. Even with a growing sense of empathy, though, they still may giggle a little if you trip.

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