Babies go through several stages of emotional development from birth through age three. These stages continue to transform as your toddler becomes a child, teenager, and adult. In the early years, emotions can be incredibly confusing for little ones to process.
As your baby’s speech progresses, she’ll have more words available to talk about her day, ask questions to understand the world around her, and let you know what she wants or needs. But, explaining her feelings can still be challenging because they’re not a concrete concept.
“Feelings words” give your baby a way to explain how she feels – and there are plenty of them to use as she develops her language skills and emotional intelligence.
What are Feelings Words and How Do They Develop?
Feelings words are anything that describes a feeling. Babies and toddlers don’t always have a large enough vocabulary to explain how they feel, but they still feel emotions intensely. Instead of using words, they’ll laugh, cry, or even throw a tantrum because those acts get their point across.
When language develops enough – usually around age two – your baby can start to label her feelings with words like sad or happy. Moving into preschool age, she’ll begin to understand more about what these words mean and how others are feeling. As she develops a broader vocabulary with your support, she’ll start using bigger words to describe her emotions, like stressed, cheerful, bored, or relaxed.
Teaching Words for Feelings
Think of how you feel when you can’t describe exactly what you feel; it’s irritating, right? Sometimes we can’t find the right word for our feelings, but babies and toddlers don’t yet have these words in their vocabulary to use, which can lead to a lot of frustration for both them and you.
Although your baby won’t start to say feelings words until she’s around two years old, she can still listen to what you say to boost her understanding, thanks to her developing receptive language skills. Here are a few ways you can encourage a vocabulary filled with feelings words at each stage of your baby’s development:
Birth to 24 Months
This window is when your baby will learn all about her emotions and start to understand what they mean. During this time, focus on bridging the gap between her feelings and the “whys” behind them.
One way to do this is by showing your baby your emotions in a healthy way. When you play with or snuggle your baby, make sure she sees your face and smile. If she’s crying, you might frown your mouth to show that her being sad makes you sad, too.
You can also explain emotions as you read a story or play together. Say things like, “Wow, that rabbit looked so scared when the tractor drove through the field! Do you think he was frightened?”
By now, your toddler might have some basic feelings words in her vocabulary, so it’s an excellent time to start building on them. Her language skills are now at a point where she can begin to put a label on emotions, so you can help give her words to describe exactly how she feels.
If she’s scared to go to the doctor for her check-up, you might say, “I know you feel worried about visiting the doctor, but I’ll be there to hold your hand.” You can also help her understand her feelings during a tantrum (“I can tell you’re frustrated. Do you want me to come back in a few minutes after you calm down so we can talk?”).
Explaining how others might feel can also support her emotional intelligence while building her feelings vocabulary: “Your little brother looks so peaceful right now. I think he’s very comfortable in his crib.”
Babies and toddlers might not be able to say what they want to say, but they can start understanding more about expressing and explaining their emotions with your help. You can find more ideas about supporting emotional development in our BabySparks development program!