What's Going On in There? A Sneak Peek into Your Baby's Brain

By Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian

A group of us were sitting around with our babies, bleary and silly with sleep deprivation, and started doing that thing where you say what you imagine the baby is thinking. My friend Andrew looked at his nine-month-old twins (Nate was mouthing a rattle, Kate was watching him) and said, “Kate is all, ‘What are you doing? Chewing on a toy? You’re acting like a baby!’

When we think about babies, it’s natural to focus on how different they are from us—how helpless and clueless they seem. But the reality is that even very young babies are trying to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing all around them. They also have a growing ability to feel complex emotions, like sadness and fear, very early in life. Surprising? Yes. In fact, it turns out that many parents tell us they don’t fully understand just how early and deeply their babies are affected by their experiences in the world.

Tuning In—a national parent survey conducted by ZERO TO THREE and the Bezos Family Foundation—revealed these and a number of other important “aha” moments for parents. So if you have ever stared at your baby’s enormous bald head and wondered what on earth was going on in there, consider this a sneak peek into five important ways that your young baby is learning from her experiences in the first year of life.

  1. Your baby can be affected by your moods—and sense how you’re feeling as early as three months old. The Tuning In survey found that almost half of parents (47%) believe this doesn’t happen until one year of age or older. The truth is that babies pick up on your facial expressions and tone of voice—whether you are sad, angry, or happy—right from the start, and they react accordingly. This is why it’s really important to be mindful of your own emotional state. Having healthy ways to deal with stress and other difficult feelings that come up in parenting (and life) helps you cope in ways that don’t impact your baby.
  2. Very young babies already have very big feelings. Babies can begin feeling sadness and fear as early as three to five months of age. Our research revealed that 42% of parents believe babies begin experiencing these feelings at one year or older. But the fact is that way before they can say their first words, and as early as three to five months old, babies experience a whole range of emotions, like joy, sadness, anger, interest and excitement. Tune in to your baby’s facial expressions, sounds, and gestures and you’ll find clues about how your baby is feeling. When you respond sensitively, she learns that her feelings matter, which builds her trust in you.
  3. Your baby knows when you’re sharing important information. Even young babies know when you are showing or telling them something you want them to focus on. They pay special attention when you make eye contact, call their name, and use that high-pitched, sing-song voice (“parentese”) that babies love. In fact, research has found that the more you talk to babies using parentese, the more words they learn over the long run.
  4. Babies figure out what’s going on in the world by watching your reaction. They read your actions and facial expressions to see whether a new person or situation is safe. If you smile at a new childcare provider and tell your child what a good time he is going to have with her, your child will feel safe and happier about this new person. But if you show worry, and keep coming back to check on him, your baby may think that childcare is not such a good place and start to feel worried and unsure, making the transition tougher. So think about how you want your child to feel about new experiences and then act in ways that will help your baby cope.  
  5. Babies can be affected by stressful surroundings as early as six months old. Tuning In found that parents expected this to happen much later. Half of all parents said that the quality of a parent’s care has a long-term impact on a child’s development beginning at age six months or older when, in reality, this starts at birth (and even in utero!) 

Danger can come in many forms for young children, from angry faces and reactions, rough handling, big changes in their daily routine, or being overloaded by too much stimulation. There’s even research showing that sleeping babies’ stress levels go up when there is shouting in the home (yet 47% of parents believe this doesn’t affect children until age one). So while it’s natural to have arguments with a co-parent every once and a while, remember that living with ongoing stress and fear can negatively affect children’s development. Surrounding your baby with nurturing relationships sets the foundation for healthy development both now and in the long run.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is the Senior Parenting Advisor at ZERO TO THREE where she translates the science of early childhood for parents.

Rebecca Parlakian serves as their Director of Parenting Resources. ZERO TO THREE is a national nonprofit focused on promoting the healthy development of children from birth to three.


ZERO TO THREE works to ensure all babies and toddlers benefit from the family and community connections critical to their well-being and development. Since 1977, the organization has advanced the proven power of nurturing relationships by transforming the science of early childhood into helpful resources, practical tools and responsive policies for millions of parents, professionals and policymakers.