Little children, big emotions: Growing self-regulation in babies
5 minutes

Photos taken in collaboration with Deborah Quek, featuring one of our ParentWise families

Little children have the purest reactions. They cry when they're startled, whine when they're hungry, laugh when they're amused and loudly declare when they don't like something.

At the same time, self-regulation or the ability to understand and control one's behaviour and reactions, is an important skill for managing difficult emotions such as anger, stress, sadness and fear.

Although it develops from infancy and rapidly increases in capacity during toddler and preschool years, babies aren't born with an innate ability to self-regulate. So without adequate support from caregivers and the environment, self-regulation will not be fully established naturally in children, much like math or language skills.

Children need structured environments, supportive relationships, direct instruction and coaching to develop their self-regulation ability. And the best place to do so is in warm and responsive relationships that children have with their caregivers.

These are relationships where they feel respected as individuals, comforted and supported in times of stress, and confident that they will be cared for no matter what. This positive relationship allows children to feel secure enough to practise new skills and learn from mistakes.

Without adequate support from caregivers and the environment, self-regulation will not be fully established naturally in children.

Over time, responding to a baby's needs in a responsive and consistent manner helps them to learn that the feelings of distress they are having are not permanent. They learn that these feelings do pass.

Knowing there will be a loving adult there to soothe them when the world becomes overwhelming is an infant's first experience with self-control. This sense of being loved and understood gives babies a foundation of safety and security that is essential for coping with feelings in a healthy way.

Here are some ways you can help your baby develop self-regulation skills.


1. Plenty of face-to-face time

Research indicates that mutual gazing between caregivers and their infants helps babies develop emotional and attention regulation skills.

One study showed that mothers who were alert and attentive to their one-month-old infants during face-to-face interaction had infants who developed better regulatory skills at four months old.

2. Show them how to use words

Researchers have found that the growing mastery of language leads to the emergence of private speech where children talk to themselves to guide their thinking about what they should do. Language provides the foundation for the development of self-regulatory skills.

As you model private speech to your baby, they will develop thinking processes and learn how to regulate themselves.

3. Help to restore the calm

Respond quickly to your baby when they are upset by helping them to calm down. This might take experimenting with different soothing methods, and it's okay to try until something works.

Maybe your baby needs physical touch – a hug or cuddle. Some babies prefer to be swaddled. Others just need to blow off steam on their own in a safe, quiet place (they need you to find or create that space for them!).

The calmer your baby feels, the more in control they will be of their behaviour and reactions. As you help them calm down, they will pick up skills on how to soothe themselves – for example, they may suck their thumbs to comfort themselves.

Being able to self-soothe is a child's first step towards learning how to self-regulate. And remember, the first person they model after is you – so don't panic even when they lose control. Stay calm and show them how it's done. You've got this!

Have a story to share on growing self-regulation in your child? Sent it to us here.

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