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Understanding Toddler Empathy Development

Updated: Jan 10

Okay, so even though young children can learn to share and express their needs in very basic ways, babies cannot manipulate adults. We have established that much. But what about developing empathy?


At what age do babies or toddlers develop empathy?


The answer here might surprise you a little. I think many people have learn of tales of babes in the hospital nursery all crying at the same time simply because one baby started crying. While that may be an early precursor to empathy development, it is not quite the way you or I think about social empathy. While we know that babies are naturally self-centered (also known as ego-centric), they actually start developing signs of empathy awareness earlier than we once believed.


Same sex couple holding a baby

Research suggests that early signs of empathy development are present between 8- and 10-months of life. As the infant grows and experiences prosocial interactions with their caregivers, so does their ability to identify distress on the faces of others. This makes sense if we think about know of child development. As a refresher, Babies between the ages of 6 to 9 months start to develop object permanence. This is the time that stranger awareness and anxiety first starts presenting itself. That means that faces take on a whole new meaning for babies around this age and they start studying faces with an increased level of interest. With the support of caregivers who are modeling empathy, babies learn the importance of empathy and what it looks and feels like to consider someone else's experience.


Does toddler empathy help development?


Asian girl and African American girl playing at preschool tabl with building blocks.

In studies that were examining how babies use faces to understand their surroundings, it was found that babies who showed signs of empathy by 10-months are at a higher likelihood to demonstrate positive prosocial behaviors in their preschool years (i.e., ages 2- to 5-years). This means that when babies nearing toddlerhood show empathy, they have more healthy social behaviors throughout their toddler years. While many people focus heavily on children knowing their ABCs, and 123s, the most defnitive factor in later school success is actually social skills, not reading, math, or science. When children enter kindergarten, it is more important that they know how to interact with others and emotionally regulate (within age expectactions) than it is for them to know all of the letters in the alphabet.


But is that only true for girls?


Nope. Contrary to popular belief, differences in empathy development between genders are not significant, such that babies of all genders have similar capacities and rates of empathy development. Remember, empathy development is are prosocial behaviors, such as helping behaviors.

Helping behaviors are classified as empathy skills. Several studies have shown that many babies demonstrate a willingness to help, cooperate, and share with support from their caregivers. Often by age 18-months, toddlers share food and toys with familiar and unfamiliar adults. Additionally, toddlers will offer their support for task completion (e.g., toddlers may try to help their caregiver reach an item or problem-solve) when it is clear that the adult needs assistance. This demonstrates the existence of early altruistic (i.e., self-directed) helping desires in very young children.


Takeaways


Let's recap the main ideas.

  • Babies start showing signs of empathy development around 8-months old.

  • There are no differences in gender when it comes to teaching toddler empathy or expression of toddler empathy.

  • Toddlers how show signs of empathy towards the end of their first year are more likely to have healthy social skills in preschool.

  • Social skills are the strongest predictor for academic performance in the early elementary school.

  • Empathy development is not completely natural. Child learn empathy from having caregivers model this behavior.


Stay tuned for next week when we will explore the earliest development of social interest in babies. I am excited that you all have been reading these posts. Please feel free to send me a message or leave comment. Play doesn't stop being important when you turn a certain age. Everyday is precious. Take a moment to play a little today.


PlayfulLeigh,

Dr. Dowtin

Hopefully, you enjoyed reading about baby and toddler infant development. Share newly learned or relearned knowledge with those you love.


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Links/References


Brownell, C. A. (2013). Early development of prosocial behavior: Current perspectives.

infancy : The Official Journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, 18(1), 1–9. http://doi.org/10.1111/infa.12004


Dunfield, K., Kuhlmeier, V. A., O’Connell, L., & Kelley, E. (2011). Examining the diversity of

prosocial behavior: Helping, sharing, and comforting in infancy. Infancy, 16(3), 227-247. Retrieved from, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1532-7078.2010.00041.x


Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Altruistic helping in human infants and young

chimpanzees. science, 311(5765), 1301-1303. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/311/5765/1301


Quann, V., & Wien, C. A. (2006). The visible empathy of infants and toddlers. Young Children, 61(4), 22. Retrieved from

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mary_Mcmullen/publication/305774123_The_legacy_of_visible_empathy_Teaching_us_to_be_more_care-aware_A_response_to_the_chapter_%27The_visible_empathy_of_infants_and_toddlers%27/links/57a0c19608aeef8f311c7579/The-legacy-of-visible-empathy-Teaching-us-to-be-more-care-aware-A-response-to-the-chapter-The-visible-empathy-of-infants-and-toddlers.pdf


Roth-Hanania, R., Davidoc, M., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (2011). Empathy development from 8 to 16 months: Early signs of concerns for others. Infant Behavior and Development, 34(3), 447-458. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0163638311000506


Two girls playing: Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.