Supporting Infants and Toddlers in Child Care to Experience, Manage, and Express Emotions

Download the article, Introduction to Emotional Development.

Article - Introduction to Emotional Development
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A Caregivers’ Critical Role

Infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) is synonymous with healthy social and emotional development and can be defined as “the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years old to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture” (Zero to Three, 2017; emphasis added).

Healthy social-emotional development for babies and toddlers occurs through warm, positive, and secure relationships with caring and nurturing adults. Emotional development begins early in life and is a critical aspect of development that is firmly tied to all other areas of a child’s growth and development.

According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, “The core features of emotional development include the ability to identify and understand one’s own feelings, to accurately read and comprehend emotional states in others, to manage strong emotions and their expression in a constructive manner, to regulate one’s own behavior, to develop empathy for others, and to establish and sustain relationships” (2004, p. 2; emphasis added).

In child care settings, infant/toddler caregivers play an important role in supporting babies and toddlers as they develop their capacity to positively experience, manage, and express emotions


Strengthening the Capacity for Healthy Emotional Development

“The importance of keeping in mind the cultural backgrounds and beliefs of the children and families in a teacher’s care cannot be overstated when teaching young children to identify, understand, and respond to emotions”(Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, 2005, p. 3)

As the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child Explains, “From birth, children rapidly develop their abilities to experience and express different emotions, as well as their capacity to cope with and manage a variety of feelings” (2004, p.1). In the first 3 years of life, babies and toddlers are developing the ability to express a wide range of increasingly complex emotions. As they begin to experience emotions, they are also learning to manage those feelings. Finally, babies and toddlers are also learning how to identify the feelings and emotions in others. This is a critical aspect of empathy and emotional literacy.

This is a lot of “firsts” at once! Acknowledging and understanding that babies are not born with the ability to understand and manage their feelings is critically important, and they need supportive adults to help them grow and develop in this area.

Caregivers can support the developing capacity of babies and toddlers to experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions through fostering positive, consistent relationships, having responsive interactions, and altering the environment to be supportive of the emotional needs of very young children.


Center on the Social Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.(2005). Fostering emotional literacy in young children: Labeling emotions.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Children’s emotional development is built into the architecture of their brains.

Zero to Three. (2017). The basics of infant and early childhood mental health: A briefing paper.