What makes babies happy may surprise you. Child development experts who study the subject say that happiness isn’t something you give babies – it’s something you teach them.
Learn the most common reasons babies cry and how to soothe a crying baby. Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, says over-indulged children — whether showered with toys or shielded from emotional discomfort — are more likely to grow into teenagers who are bored, cynical, and joyless.
“The best predictors of happiness are internal, not external,” says Hallowell, who stresses the importance of helping kids develop a set of inner tools they can rely on throughout life.
The good news is you don’t have to be an expert in child psychology to impart the inner strength and wisdom it takes to weather life’s ups and downs. With patience and flexibility, any parent can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of happiness.
Learn to read your baby’s emotions
As your child matures from a newborn to a more interactive baby by the age of 6 months, he’ll become a master at showing you when something makes him content or upset. His face lights up in a heart-melting smile when you enter the room, or he wails when someone takes away his favorite toy. And you’ve probably noticed that he flips between smiling and crying faster than you can pop a pacifier in his mouth.
According to Lise Eliot, a pediatric neuroscientist and author of What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, a baby is so mercurial in his emotions because his cerebral cortex, which controls automatic responses, is barely turned on yet. As the cerebral cortex develops over the coming years, your child will be able to better control his behavior and moods.
If it seems your baby spends more time wailing than giggling, that’s because babies actually experience distress earlier than happiness. Crying and distressed facial expressions are there for a reason, explains Eliot. They serve as an SOS to motivate the caregiver to fix whatever’s wrong.
Find two perfect, development-boosting activities for every week of your baby’s first year.
But if your baby is crying, how do you know if he’s in pain, hungry, or just bored? “A sensitive mother can pick up on different kinds of cries and facial expressions,” says Paul C. Holinger, professor of psychiatry at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. “The eyebrows, the mouth, and vocalizations are all signaling systems for the baby.”
For example, a baby in physical distress will cry with the corners of his mouth turned down and his eyebrows arched in the middle. With anger, your baby’s face becomes flushed, his eyebrows turn down, his jaw clenches, and he lets out a roar. Most parents recognize that a fearful, easily upset baby isn’t a happy camper, but Holinger finds that many parents don’t recognize that anger is simply excessive distress. “If there’s a loud noise or bright light,” he says, “the child will show signs of distress. If that noise or light continues to increase, the feeling turns to anger.”
Carrie Masia-Warner, a child psychologist and associate director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Institute at the New York University School of Medicine, warns that you shouldn’t read too much into your baby’s moods. “I wouldn’t call babies happy or unhappy,” she says. “They’re content or not content based on something in their immediate environment.” While the youngest infants don’t really feel happy when they look happy, the good news is they’re not emotionally aware when they’re screaming, either. Eliot explains that the “cortical emotion centers” of your baby’s brain don’t begin to function until he’s 6 to 8 months old, when he starts to feel the emotions that seem so vivid on his face.
Your baby probably has his own ways of showing you when he’s not content. Some babies may cry, while others become clingy. As you get to know your own child’s temperament, you’ll become better at learning the signs that something’s not right in his world.
Find out more about your baby’s temperament.
Have fun with your baby
Although a colorful crib mobile and her first taste of applesauce may bring a smile to your baby’s face, what makes your baby happiest is much simpler: you. And that’s the first key to creating a happy child says Hallowell.
“Connect with your baby, play with her,” he advises. “If you’re having fun with your baby, she’s having fun. If you create what I call a ‘connected childhood,’ that is by far the best step to guarantee your child will be happy.”
Play creates joy, but play is also how your child develops skills essential to future happiness. As she gets older, play allows her to discover what she loves to do — build villages with blocks, make “potions” out of kitchen ingredients, paint elaborate watercolors — all of which may point her toward interests she’ll have for a lifetime.
Help your baby master new skills
Hallowell’s prescription for creating lifelong happiness includes a surprising twist: Happy people are often those who have mastered a skill. For example, when your baby figures out how to get the spoon into his mouth or takes those first shaky steps by himself, he learns from his mistakes, he learns persistence and discipline, and then he experiences the joy of succeeding due to his own efforts.
He also reaps the reward of gaining recognition from others for his accomplishment. Most important, he discovers he has some control over his life: If he tries, he can do it. Hallowell says that this feeling of control through mastery is an important factor in determining adult happiness.
Hallowell warns that children, like adults, need to follow their own interests, or there’ll be no joy in their successes.
Cultivate your baby’s healthy habits
Lots of sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet are important to everyone’s well-being, especially children’s. Giving your baby plenty of space to release her energy, whether that means kicking her legs in the air, crawling toward a beloved ball, or going back and forth — over and over — in the infant swing at the park, will help put her in a good mood. And pay attention to your baby’s need for structure: While some babies are very easygoing, most thrive and feel more settled with a set schedule.
You might also want to pay attention to any connection between your baby’s mood and particular foods. Some parents find that while sugar can give their child an energy boost, it can also lead to fussiness.
Food allergies and sensitivities may also play a role in your child’s behavior and mood. If you’re nursing, you may find that your baby becomes fussy after you eat certain foods. Talk to your child’s doctor if you suspect that your baby’s formula or diet is linked to signs of distress.
Let your baby figure it out
In the first six months of a baby’s life, it’s important for parents to respond to their infant’s needs. “You can’t spoil a baby,” says Masia-Warner. But after about six months, if you run over at every little hiccup, you’re taking away an important learning opportunity. Masia-Warner says it’s good to let babies cry a little as long as you’re giving them lots of positive affection and attention the rest of the time.
But, you say, I’m supposed to be creating a happy child! Shouldn’t I swoop down and make everything better? Masia-Warner sees this as a big mistake many loving, well-meaning parents make.
“Parents try to make it better for their children all the time, to make them happy all the time. That’s not realistic. Don’t always jump in and try to fix it,” says Masia-Warner. “Children need to learn to tolerate some distress, some unhappiness. Let them struggle, figure out things on their own, because it allows them to learn how to cope.”
In your baby’s first year, he’s learning so many things: to sit up, crawl, grasp objects, walk, and talk. Each accomplishment brings him confidence and satisfaction in his achievement. So don’t hurry to pick up the rattle he just dropped or the teddy bear he’s struggling to reach: Give him some time and encouragement to pick it up himself.
Hallowell agrees that allowing children a range of experiences, even the difficult or frustrating ones, helps build the reservoir of inner strength that leads to happiness. Whether a child’s 7 months old and trying to crawl or 7 years old and struggling with subtraction, Hallowell tells parents, he’ll get better at dealing with adversity simply by grappling with it successfully again and again.
Allow your baby to be sad or mad
When your baby gets older, you can encourage her to label her feelings and express them verbally. Even before she can talk, you can show her pictures of faces and ask her which one is feeling the same way she is.
Young children pick up very quickly on words such as “happy” or “angry.” When they put words to their emotions, it’s easier for them to recognize and regulate their feelings.
However, Masia-Warner warns, you shouldn’t overreact to your child’s negative feelings. “It’s normal for kids to become oversensitive or clingy or nervous at times because of something in their environment, but it’s not unhappiness.”
You’ll find this is especially important as your child grows. When your child pouts in a corner during a birthday party, your natural reaction may be to push her to join in the fun. But it’s important to allow her to be unhappy.
Hallowell is concerned that “some parents worry any time their children suffer a little rejection, they don’t get invited to the birthday party, or they cry because they didn’t get what they wanted.”
Children need to know that it’s okay to be unhappy sometimes — it’s simply part of life. And if you try to squelch any unhappiness, you may send the message that it’s wrong to feel upset. Let your child experience her feelings, including sadness.
Teach your baby to share and care
Research shows that people who have meaning in their lives feel less depressed. As your baby matures, she can be taught — even in small ways — how satisfying it is to help others.
Even as early as 10 months, you can teach your child the satisfaction of give and take. If you give her a bite of banana, let her do the same by feeding you a piece. If you brush her hair, give her a chance to brush yours. Show her how happy her generosity made you feel.
These small moments can nourish a sensibility toward sharing and caring for others. As your baby grows into a toddler, simple household chores, such as putting her dirty clothes in the hamper or setting the table, can help a young child feel that she’s making a contribution.
Be a role model to your baby
According to Dora Wang, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and mother of 3-year-old Zoe, research shows that you can pass on your temperament to your child — not necessarily through your genes — but through your own behavior and childrearing style.
For better or worse, children pick up on their parents’ moods. Even young babies imitate their parents’ emotional style, which activates specific neural pathways in the brain.
In other words, when you smile, your baby smiles and his brain becomes “wired” for smiling. Similarly, if you have a colicky baby who cries for hours, the best thing for you to do is to stay calm, because babies pick up on their caregivers’ stress.
With a new baby, it’s normal to feel tired, overwhelmed, and even a little blue. But if you find yourself constantly stressed out or depressed, it’s important to seek help.
Find out more about postpartum depression and anxiety.
Do you worry about whether your child is happy? Take our poll and tell us.
What do you do when your child’s in a slump? We asked BabyCenter parents, who shared their favorite tried-and-true tips to chase away the blues and bring a smile to their child’s face. Read all seven tips for cheering up your child.