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What age can babies feel love?

Babies start to experience and express love from the moment they are born. However, their ability to feel and understand love develops gradually over the first few years of life as their brains mature. In the first weeks and months, a baby’s experience of love is primal, tied to their needs for food, comfort and safety. As they grow, babies start to recognize faces and voices, respond to affection, and demonstrate preferences for caregivers. Their capacity for love expands in complexity along with cognitive and social development.

Newborns (0-2 months)

At birth, babies already respond to human contact. They prefer the sound of voices, particularly their mothers’, and can recognize faces they saw frequently during the last trimester of pregnancy. Newborns feel most secure and comforted with skin-to-skin contact. When held this way by parents, infants show responses like relaxed muscles, regular heart rate and breathing, and reduced crying.

While newborns don’t cognitively understand love, their behaviors reflect an inborn human need for affection and attachment. Crying is their way of signaling a need for comfort and care. Babies soothe more easily when held gently and spoken to tenderly. A baby’s dependence on caretakers helps bonding and feelings of love take root.

Key developments related to love:

  • Prefers human voices, especially mom’s voice
  • Stares at faces
  • Calms when skin-to-skin with caregiver
  • Cries to signal needs

2-4 months

As babies become more alert and attentive in the following months, they start to show recognition of and preference for primary caregivers. Social smiling emerges during this period, indicating babies are responding to affection. Babies may “light up” and smile when they see or hear mom or dad. They also begin to follow faces and recognize expressions.

Babies bond through eye contact, talking, singing, gentle touch, hugs and kisses. Laughing and giggling show they are feeling joy and attachment. Babies may become upset around unfamiliar people, which shows their feelings are selective.

Key developments:

  • Social smiling emerges
  • Shows preference for parents/regular caregivers
  • May become fretful with strangers
  • Follows faces and recognizes some expressions
  • Laughs and squeals in delight

4-7 months

In the following months, separation anxiety and stranger wariness set in as object permanence develops. Babies realize when parents leave and are distressed. Their emotional attachment becomes clear. Preference for the primary caregiver strengthens during this period.

Babies increasingly respond with grins, giggles and coos during affectionate interactions. They may cry when the interaction ends. Games like peekaboo cause delight. Babies show they enjoy companionship, understand relationship roles, and feel safe and secure with parents’ love.

Key developments:

  • Separation anxiety emerges
  • Shows fear around strangers
  • Has clear preferences for primary caregiver
  • Responds joyfully to games like peekaboo
  • May be clingy and cry when caregiver pulls away

7-12 months

During the second half of the first year, babies grow more mobile and independent but still rely heavily on parents for security. Stranger anxiety peaks around 8-10 months but attachment to loved ones remains strong. Babies learn to expect comfort when caregivers respond promptly to cries. Clear favorites emerge in terms of toys and people.

Reciprocal interactions become more intentional and complex. Babies may initiate games themselves and laugh gleefully at parents’ responses. They begin participating in routines like feeding or bedtime with sounds and gestures showing their engagement.

Key developments:

  • Continued separation anxiety
  • Initiates social games like peekaboo
  • Has clear favorite people and toys
  • Shows preferences for certain routines
  • May shake head “no” or push away unwanted approaches

12-24 months

In the second year of life, babies form a clear attachment and profound emotional bond to primary caregivers. Their sense of independence is growing as well. Toddlers may venture away to explore then check back with a parent for reassurance. Crying when a parent leaves and greeting them happily upon return shows their strong feelings.

Toddlers thrive on praise and acknowledgement for things like learning new skills. They may repeat behaviors that elicited positive responses. Affection like hugs makes them feel valued. Toddlers are forming a basic understanding of their importance to parents.

Key developments:

  • Strong emotional attachments
  • Checks back with parents for safety while exploring
  • Learns to give and receive love through interactions
  • Responds to praise and encouragement
  • Shows possession of favorite items like blankets or toys

24-36 months

The end of the third year marks significant advances in toddlers’ ability to feel and express love. Their sense of self is clearer. Toddlers realize they exist outside of parents and have their own thoughts and emotions. Symbolic play emerges, with toddlers able to use toys to represent relationships like “mommy” and “baby.”

Toddlers feel pride when demonstrating new skills to parents and shame when scolded or told “no.” Both positive and negative responses influence their behavior. Toddlers also show concern for loved ones if they get hurt or upset. Empathy is developing.

Key developments:

  • Recognizes self as distinct from parents
  • Symbolic play shows understanding of relationships
  • Responds to praise and discipline
  • Shows concern when loved ones are distressed
  • Increasingly empathetic

3-5 years

The preschool years mark rapid maturation in children’s ability to understand and share complex emotions. Around age 3, children start to grasp the concept of love as an enduring, internal state of caring, not just behaviors like hugging. Their growing language skills allow self-expression.

Preschoolers feel pride when they accomplish something like getting dressed themselves. They also boast about achievements to parents. Children’s emotional independence is growing but they still rely on loved ones for security and support. Nurturing confidence at this age is key.

Key developments:

  • Understands love as a feeling, not just actions
  • Language improves self-expression
  • Craves praise for accomplishments
  • Shows off new skills to impress parents
  • Still dependent on parents for security

When Do Babies Understand Love?

While babies experience attachment from birth, their cognitive understanding of love develops slowly over the first years of life. Here are some key milestones in babies’ developing comprehension of love:

Age Developments
0-6 months Feels comforted when needs are met; prefers and responds to primary caregivers
6-12 months Distressed when caregivers leave; joyful when they return
12-24 months Forms emotional bonds with family; gives and receives affection
2-3 years Starts to understand love as an internal feeling, not just actions
3-5 years Able to express love verbally; recognizes self as separate from parents


Babies’ capacity to feel and understand love follows a developmental timeline, but foundations are present from birth. By age 3, toddlers progress from basic attachment to grasping love as an abstract concept. Preschoolers between 3-5 years old reach new milestones in connecting love to their sense of self-identity and gaining language to express emotions.

While babies don’t cognitively understand love at first, they receive affection and nurturing from attentive caregivers. Consistent, loving responses to a baby’s needs fosters the unfolding sense of love, security and confidence. This lifelong capacity to give and receive love is rooted in the earliest loving bonds formed with parents and family.