March 12, 2013

How Babies Demonstrate Empathy

Empathy is what makes other people matter to us and reminds us to acknowledge the people around us as we understand and share their feelings. At what stage in our social development does empathy begin?
As an intuitive counselor, Dr. Caron Goode is an expert on the early development of empathy and a child’s sensitivity to others. She notes that empathy exists in early mother-infant bonding. Even before birth, a baby in the womb is sensitive to the mother’s feelings, whether positive, neutral, or negative. Once born, a baby shows receptivity to both parents’ anger, tension, and depression, as well as their caring, responsiveness, and love.

In an article titled “Empathy: Big Feelings from Little Ones,” the Talaris Research Institute concludes that life starts with a biological bent toward empathy. From birth, babies have the ability to respond to the emotions of others. You’ve probably noticed how they imitate your facial expressions, smiling in response to your smile. They also may cry if they hear another baby cry. This type of response is a step in the development of empathy and the ability to share the feelings of another person.

Martin Hoffman, a psychology professor at New York University who did the first studies on infant empathy in the 1970s, questioned why babies cry when they hear another baby crying. Does this mean that the baby is truly concerned for his fellow human, or just annoyed by the noise? A study built on Hoffman's work was conducted in Italy in which researchers played for infants a recording of other babies crying. As predicted, the tears started flowing. But the odd thing is that when researchers played babies a recording of their own cries, they rarely cried. This shows that there is some rudimentary form of empathy in place, right from birth, but Hoffman also noted that the emotion tends to fade over time. Babies older than six months no longer cry when they hear another baby crying, but they may grimace when they notice the discomfort of others.

Have you noticed your baby showing signs of being empathic?

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