What we can Learn about Emotions from Babies


When we think of babies, the first thing that might come to mind is the incessantly crying child in the plane or the loud baby in the restaurant. If we have the chance to spend more time with a baby, we soon get to witness their sweet giggles and their looks of curiosity as they put everything in their mouths to discover the world.

Recently I have had the chance to spend a lot of time with babies in a day care - about 20 of them aged 3 to 18 months. As I watched and spent time with them I learned and was reminded of 5 key things:

1. We are all different. Never has this been more clear to me than as I watched babies that were born within days of each other, where one was already walking and the other had not even begun to crawl. One of them may be completely fascinated by turning the pages of a plastic book and another only pays attention to musical instruments and the sounds they make. Yet another is fascinated by anything ball shaped. Some of the babies cry very easily and often, others barely ever cry or show any sign of discontent. 
All of these babies are completely healthy. So already at the tender age of a few months - where I imagine the outside influence of parents and society’s norms are still much less than in later years - the babies feel emotions and express themselves in very different ways. Which leads me to believe that it’s even more important for us all to understand and respect ourselves - how we feel, what we need and the urges we have to act.
2. Emotions of babies are raw. As their only method of communication is to cry, to make other sounds or to be silent, babies are rather limited in how they express themselves and their needs. They also haven’t learned to filter, alter, suppress or hide their emotions yet, so what comes out is raw and pure. It’s extraordinary to watch them and to witness the emotions that go on inside them. One minute they will be curiously inspecting a plastic bottle, within an instant they can begin to cry as if their life depended on it. Then as suddenly as it started, they can stop because something caught their attention and became more interesting. 
This goes on and on and it so clearly shows how emotions come and go in waves and also that emotions are always linked to something (a sound or event around us, a need or thought that we have, etc.) As quickly as the situation changes or as their attention shifts, so does the feeling. This is true for us adults as well, except that we are often confused by the waves of emotions, or we might not like some of them, so we try to get rid of them. If we let our emotions come as they naturally do and accept them, without judging them or even expressing them, we would very clearly see the multitude of feelings we have all the time and also that many of them will pass on their own very quickly - if we let them. (Another article that might interest you: What is the purpose of our emotions?)
3. Babies master mindfulness. Observing the babies I noticed that they are incredibly mindful. They are fascinated in discovering every detail of what is around them - they inspect every aspect of the objects they find, touching every surface, scratching it with their nails, putting it in their mouths, turning it in every which way… Granted they are discovering the world and many things for the first time. However, often when I follow their gaze or their pointing fingers I find myself discovering things I wouldn’t have noticed. I struggle to think that they might be planning what they want to do when they get home or what they had for dinner last night. In many ways I think this mindfulness and full attention in the moment is what makes babies so very peaceful and in tune with themselves.
As adults or even teens, we become very good at analizing what has happened, planning what might come, preparing ourselves for everything. Essentially our minds constantly work overtime thinking of the past or future. This can be quite stressful and ultimately we end up barely ever being really present in the place and time where we physically are. We miss out on a lot of wonderful things in life by not being present and with that we miss out on many 'positive' feelings. We also spend a lot of energy on things we cannot change or control, which brings about 'negative' feelings. Babies can be examples or models for us, to remind us of the value of being present here and now - enjoying more 'positive' feelings and experiencing less 'negative' ones.
4. Babies are in touch with their needs. I continue to be amazed how well babies know exactly what they need. They cry or scream to say “Hey, I need something”. Then the guessing game begins - is he hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Needing some loving affection? They keep crying until we find exactly what it is they need (water, food, diaper change, sleep, reassurance, a hug, attention, a playmate…).
These babies showed me that at one point, we did know exactly what we needed. I found myself wondering, when do we lose touch with our needs? When do we stop paying attention or respecting our needs for sleep? For healthy food? For things that bring us joy? (My past post explains more about this: Emotions and Needs... More linked than you think)
5. Babies remind us how contagious emotions are. We know that feelings are contagious. Yes, we pick up and feel the emotions of others that are around us. (More about how this works here: Are You Catching the Emotions Around You?). This phenomena became very obvious around babies. If the adults are calm and relaxed, so are the children. If the adults are stressed, anxious or upset, the babies are restless and crying. It's immediately visible. The same is true when trying to put a baby to bed. If the adult is agitated or nervous, the baby feels it and will not sleep. It's quite incredible to witness this and to think that this continues as we are all in a room full of adults, it just becomes less visible.



In a way, we all still have this pure baby within us and it’s just a matter of getting back in touch with it. It’s about paying respectful attention to our needs, recognizing and accepting our emotions, honoring our differences and also allowing ourselves to be present in the now. Babies learn so many things in the first months of their life, it’s also a reminder how capable we human beings are of learning. So yes, we can learn to manage our feelings, address our needs and enjoy life fully. 

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Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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