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How Newborn Babies Understand And Display Empathy

It’s pretty much par for the course to look into your newborn’s face and wonder what the hell is going on inside that teeny tiny little brain. It’s also pretty common to decide the answer to that question is “not much aside from an overwhelming urge to stick nipples in their mouth.” You can probably totally empathize with that. But did you know that your boob-crazy infant can also empathize with you? True story.

The ‘Like Me’ Hypothesis

Back in 2002, a dude named Andrew N. Meltzoff was checking out a bunch of infant studies. They appeared to indicate that babies fresh from the oven would imitate the faces of people who floated into their view. In fact, they imitated long before they could do other sophisticated stuff like recognize themselves in the mirror and take duck lip selfies.

flickr / Nate Davis

flickr / Nate Davis

Meltzoff postulated that through imitation, infants are able to connect themselves to the other. He also suggested this imitation actually triggered responses in the infant that allowed them to feel, physically and emotionally, what the other was feeling. Thus the baby would sense the other was “like me.” Which is where the name of the hypothesis comes from (not Meltzoff’s desire to finally crack the 100 follower barrier on his Facebook page).

Luckily for empathetic babies, most people have totally stoked faces when they see newborns. Except for your cousin Ernie, who doesn’t like anything. Geeze. Lighten up a little, Ernie!

Hearing Is Believing

If you’re still not convinced, consider empathy research related to crying, which goes back as far as the mid-80s. Studies have shown that infants as young as a day-old will cry most when they heard other newborns wailing. (Those studies also show that scientists conducting this research also feel like real dicks.)

flickr / Morgan

flickr / Morgan

More than that, when the baby’s own cries were recorded and played back to them, they were less likely to start crying. There were also less likely to cry at the sound of older baby’s in distress, as if to say “up yours grandpa.”

The upshot of all of this crying is that it appears that babies have the essential building blocks of empathy. They are learning how to be totally down with what you’re feeling. Or at least what other infants are feeling.

flickr / Nate Davis

flickr / Nate Davis

Can’t Stop The Empathy

The ability to empathize does appear to grow naturally through early development. As soon as they can get their limbs together, babies will even reach out and attempt to soothe others in distress. But that doesn’t mean you can sit on your laurels and expect you’re not raising a Hitler. Developing a strong and positive emotional bond with your kid can also reinforce the idea of empathy by modeling the goodness yourself.

It’s not that tough, you both already share a love of nipples. And that’s as good a foundation as any.