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Moral & Social Development in Infants

author image Lisa Vratny-Smith, MSW
Lisa Vratny-Smith, is a social worker, behavior consultant, and yoga instructor. She has worked with children and families for more than 20 years, providing expertise in child development and behavior management. Vratny-Smith writes the Mama Drama column for "Mile High Mamas" and the Laughing Yoga Mama blog.
Moral & Social Development in Infants
The caregiving relationship has a significant impact on the social and moral development of infants. Photo Credit Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Moral and social development in infants occurs simultaneously. According to the theories of Jean Piaget, the trust built through the caregiving relationship sets the groundwork for future social interactions and moral responses. Rebecca Parlakain and Claire Lerner of the website Zero to Three encourage parents to learn and respond to their infant’s signals in order to provide a supportive environment for social and moral development to take place.


Infants in their first month are beginning to interact with their environment and the people in it. They enjoy being held in ways that allow them to view the faces of their caregivers. Crying is primary form of communication for infants and their sole means of seeking attention and interaction. Frequent touching and holding are beneficial for infants. Nevertheless, Eileen Allen and Lynn Marotz, authors of “By the Ages,” caution that too much movement or tactile stimulation can be overstimulating.

1 to 4 Months

Infants in this age range increase their activity and social interactions. As they become more aware of their bodies, they kick with excitement, turn their heads and grasp at objects. Infants smile and squeal when they recognize a friendly face. They also begin to enjoy the consistent face-to-face social interactions involved in their daily routine, such as diapering, bathing and feeding. Caregivers respond to the vocalizations of infants, reinforcing them by repeating the sounds to the infant. Allen and Marotz note that these reciprocal interactions are key in infant social development.

4 to 8 Months

An increase in attachment to caregivers and differentiating of strangers is a significant development during this stage. Allen and Marotz note that consistent care and meeting of the infant’s needs support the growth of a trusting relationship. Infants who display stranger anxiety during the later months of this age range are demonstrating that strong attachment. An awareness of themselves as separate from others is obvious at this stage, as is a willingness to be more outgoing and engaging. These infants are very curious about their environment and are eager observers of what is going on around them.

8 to 12 Months

The developing physical strength of infants approaching the end of their first year enhances their ability to discover their world and how things work. Parlakain and Lerner encourage parents to support their infants in experimenting with cause and effect by having them ring doorbells or flip light switches to see what happens. At this stage, infants want to be involved in family activities and prefer their caregiver to be in sight at all times. The amount of language they understand allows them follow simple directions and comprehend when they are told no.

Moral Development

Infants fall into the preconventional level of moral development according to the theories of Lawrence Kohlberg. This involves two orientations: punishment and pleasure seeking. Infants respond to their environment primarily to seek pleasure and meet their needs. They show joy by smiling, cooing and laughing when they are fed, comfortable and feeling safe. As they grow, they learn to make choices in response to punishment, such as being told no or having an object taken from them. Meeting an infant's basic needs through consistent care and positive social interactions simultaneously nurtures their moral development and trust in their caregivers.

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