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Fear is a typical part of a child’s development in the first five years.
Toddler fears can be worrisome to parents. Sometimes toddler fears can be inconvenient—like when my toddler was afraid of automatic flushing toilets in public restrooms. And sometimes they can be exhausting, like the toddler who is afraid of shadows at bedtime. What many parents don’t realize is that the development of fears is also a very typical part of the first five years. To learn what to expect at each age, read on.
Hours After Birth
Newborns show different responses to happy, sad, and surprised faces only hours after birth.
By 4-5 Months
Young babies notice a difference between negative emotional expressions like fear, sadness, and anger.
By 7 Months
Babies are just starting to understand the meaning associated with a fearful face between 5–7 months of age.
Generally, 7-month-old babies pay more attention to faces with fearful expressions (compared to happy or neutral expressions). Some researchers think that’s because babies rarely see fearful expressions, so perhaps these faces are more interesting. Other researchers take this as evidence that babies are beginning to understand the meaning of these expressions. For example, babies don’t pay more attention to angry faces—only fearful ones. 7-month-olds also take longer to look away from a fearful face than a happy one.
Between 8 and 12 months of age—around the same time they understand the meaning of a fearful face—babies begin to produce fearful expressions and other fear-based behaviors, like clinging to a parent, making distressed sounds, or turning away. At this age, a fear of strangers is very common, even if that “stranger” is a new babysitter or an uncle your baby doesn’t know well.
By 12 Months
One-year-olds can understand the meaning of a fearful face as a sign of danger. They are able to use this information to guide their behavior in new situations. For example, if mothers tense their grip on babies after a new toy is offered to them, 12-month-olds spend less time playing with the toy. Babies also move closer to their mothers when they see a researcher look at a new object with a fearful expression.
By 2 to 5 years
Children can use words like happy, angry, and sad to label photographs of emotional expressions. At this age, children often “mix up” labels for negative emotions like anger, fear, and sadness. Over time, children develop the ability to correctly label emotional expressions. Children also develop and express typical fears during the preschool period—of the dark, of strangers, of monsters, of going to the doctor, of dogs or other animals, and more. As children get older and can use more logical thinking skills, these fears can fade. Some fears, especially those based in a child’s experience (like being barked at by a dog), may continue. Giving children new, positive experiences with a friendly dog—and teaching them ways to cope and manage their fear—help them move on.
A parent’s most important job is to help children feel safe and loved, especially when they are feeling scared. Learn more about the best way to respond to children’s fears here.
About Baby Steps
This article was featured in Baby Steps, a ZERO TO THREE newsletter for parents and caregivers. Each issue offers science-based information on a topic of interest to parents and caregivers of young children—from sleep to challenging behaviors, and everything in between.
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