Why do babies comfort each other?

Every so often, a video of a baby comforting and helping another baby does the viral rounds. In some ways, the comments that follow are as fascinating as the video itself. Typically, the comments sections are filled with debate. Are the baby’s attempts to comfort another the result of random reflexive movement or unconscious imitation, or do they indicate fully-fledged human empathy? These debates are so fascinating because they highlight our interest in understanding the minds of babies. In other words, what (if anything) is going on in there?

Empathy includes a range of abilities. These include the ability to share emotions, understand other people’s perspectives, and to have an interest in their welfare [1]. Or, as Simon Baron-Cohen describes it: an ability to ‘identify other’s emotional responses and responding with appropriate emotion’ [2].

Can babies empathise?

As far back as 1976 researchers had identified that three-day old babies would make cries of distress when hearing another babies cry [3]. Subsequent research has confirmed these earlier findings. Throughout the first year, babies use these ‘sympathy cries’ in response to other babies’ crying. Researchers have come to general agreement that this is not merely a ‘reflexive’ behaviour, as infants also show facial expressions and other indicators of sadness in their responses[4].

Additional research suggests young babies can also tell the difference between their own cries and those of another baby [5]. Together, studies such as these tend to suggest that even the youngest babies can notice and respond to the feelings of others.

This research does point to babies having the capacity to share emotions. But does it indicate other elements of empathy, such as an understanding of these emotions?

The short answer seems to be yes, but sort of no.

Psychologists use the term ‘theory of mind’ to describe our ability to understand that other people have perceptions outside our own. Theory of mind is different from empathy but is a requirement for it. Generally speaking, researchers believe that ‘theory of mind’ typically emerges somewhere between four and six years old. This has led some people to claim that before this age, children are incapable of ‘true’ empathy.

The problem with this argument is that, like most ‘developmental milestones’, empathy is not an ‘all-or-nothing’ characteristic. We don’t say a ‘baby does not eat’, just because she has not progressed to solids. Empathy, like most progressions, emerges and become more complex over time.

A good comparison is a child’s gradual progression to mobility. Initially, a developmentally typical baby starts with crawling, then tottering, finally progressing to walking. Language is similar – babies understand words and engage in ‘conversation’ long before they can speak. These early foundation practices are just as important in ‘language’ as the eventual ‘adult’ language the baby will learn.

Empathy appears similar. We can only say that ‘babies cannot empathise’ if we use adult-centred measures of what empathy is.

However, if we look through the eyes of a baby, empathy (just as language, movement and food do) forms a rich part of their experiences.

One of the most fascinating studies found babies at around 15 months of can already predict what other people’s emotional reactions will be, based on the type of (positive or negative) event occurring[6].  Even younger babies engage in reaching out, spontaneous helping behaviours and using other ‘expressions of concern’ [7] appropriate to the circumstances. These behaviours appear to happen more often, and with more complexity, as babies grow.

Empathy, then, appears to be a capability that probably exists from the earliest age, but increases in complexity (and visibility through adult eyes) over time.

If we’re born with it, why doesn’t everyone have it?   

The answer to this question lies in understanding how empathy develops. Many researchers believe that empathy is strengthened, and babies gain increasingly complex skills in empathy through certain types of play, shared attention, and role-modelling[8]. In plain-English, early empathy is best extended in the context of relationships. The important features of these relationships appear to be as follows.

  1. the baby themselves is spoken to with empathy and feeling-rich vocabulary;
  2. the adult models pro-social and caring behaviours – particularly in play and day-to-day interactions.

However, this can be easier said than done. Some parents find it difficult to notice and engage with their baby’s early empathetic behaviours[9]. In some child-care and group settings ‘behaviour management’ is punitive, rather than pro-social. In other contexts, play is limited. All of these (and other factors) can change the path of empathy development.

So how do we support healthy empathy foundations in babies and little children?

There is now increasing but awareness that empathy for others is only one part of ‘full’ prosocial development. Children’s pro-social development appears to thrive the most in relationships where adults have the capability to ‘mentalise’. This has nothing to do with mental illness.

Mentalisation involves being able to empathise with another person, as well as with ourselves.

In other words, one of the most crucial factors in raising children with strong social skills is having some understanding of about our own responses and how they impact on the baby, being able to see the motivations that underpin our actions and having self-compassion. Building our ability to cultivate this double-sided empathy with babies provides a rich environment for life-long humane and connected relationships.

 

[1] Jessica A. Stern and Jude Cassidy, “Empathy from Infancy to Adolescence: An Attachment Perspective on the Development of Individual Differences,” Developmental Review 47 (2018): 1–22.

[2] Baron-Cohen cited in Anthony W Bateman and Peter Fonagy, eds., Handbook of Mentalising in Mental Health Practice (Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2012), 513.

[3] Abraham Sagi and Martin L. Hoffman, “Empathic Distress in the Newborn,” Developmental Psychology 12, no. 2 (1976): 175–76.

[4] Elena Geangu et al., “Contagious Crying beyond the First Days of Life,” Infant Behavior and Development 33, no. 3 (2010): 279–88.

[5] Marco Dondi, Francesca Simion, and Giovanna Caltran, “Can Newborns Discriminate between Their Own Cry and the Cry of Another Newborn Infant?,” Developmental Psychology 35, no. 2 (1999): 418–26.

[6] Sabrina S. Chiarella and Diane Poulin-Dubois, “Cry Babies and Pollyannas: Infants Can Detect Unjustified Emotional Reactions,” Infancy : The Official Journal of the International Society on Infant Studies 18, no. Suppl 1 (August 1, 2013): E81–96.

[7] Carolyn Zahn-Waxler et al., “Development of Concern for Others,” Developmental Psychology 28, no. 1 (1992): 126–36.

[8] Tony Charman et al., “Testing Joint Attention, Imitation, and Play as Infancy Precursors to Language and Theory of Mind,” Cognitive Development 15, no. 4 (October 2000): 481–98.

[9] Zahn-Waxler et al., “Development of Concern for Others.”


Alice Campbell

Alice originally trained as a Registered Nurse, and is an Early Childhood Educator. For 25 years has worked with parents, health and early childhood professionals, and organisations to strengthen development and learning outcomes. She specialises in the use of relationship-based practice and early mental health, social and emotional development. Her many achievements have been recognised in child protection, violence prevention, and early childhood education awards.