EYFS Best Practice: All about ... supporting babies' emotional development

Ensuring that babies mature in a positive manner is an important but challenging task, says Bernadette Duffy

The head of the Thomas Coram Centre in Londondraws on her own experiences alongside research to offer some insight into the different aspects of care practitioners need to consider.

At the Thomas Coram Centre, we have a long history of supporting babies, from Captain Coram's ground-breaking work with foundling babies in the 18th century to our current work with children up to two years old in our nursery, drop-ins and with our linked childminders.

Our nursery is divided into two wings. The Moses wing is named after the image of the baby Moses in the bullrushes on the seal of the royal charter that established the foundling hospital. The Lamb wing is named after one of the images on the coat of arms of the foundling hospital. Each wing has a baby, toddler and kinder room, the baby room has six babies with two key persons, and there is a large conservatory, which links the rooms and gives the children access to the garden. The large garden is a shared space with protected baby areas.

The importance of emotional development

Emotional development is about feelings - it is about how we start to understand our own feelings and develop our understanding of the feelings of others. As human beings, we spend a lot of our lives relating to other people, and if these relationships are to be positive and promote our well-being it is essential that they are successful.

As children develop their emotional understanding, their capacity to see things from the perspectives of other people, or sense of empathy, grows. As their ability to empathise increases so does their ability to relate to other children, helping them to make friends and feel appreciated and secure.

We know that children's experiences in their early years strongly influence their outcomes in later life and neuroscientific evidence demonstrates the particular importance of the first three years of a child's life (Gopnick et al, 1999).

Babies depend on us for their survival, and without the care of adults in homes and settings they are very vulnerable. This need is the foundation of babies' strong desire to make contact with those around them. Through their interactions with parents and carers, babies should learn that they can rely on and trust first their main carer and later a small number of other significant people, if they are to develop successfully. For this to happen, babies have to experience consistency, responsiveness and sensitivity to their physical and emotional needs from the adults who care for them to enable them to form a secure attachment.

We know that children thrive in warm, positive relationships characterised by contingent responses (Evangelou et al, 2009). Contingency is about the adult's ability to be fully sensitive and responsive to the baby's communications and to respond and be involved with them. This responsiveness is at the heart of building the attachment between the baby and its carer and is also crucial in linguistic development.

Through their key relationships, babies and young children gradually learn to regulate their feelings. They start to understand basic emotions, develop the ability to control their impulses and over time learn to manage their feelings and express them appropriately. At first, babies rely on their carers to understand and regulate their emotions for them.

Example: responsive care

Ahmed, aged 10 months, became very distressed when his mother had to leave for work, sobbing and reaching out to her. His key person, Miriam, held him gently, rubbing his back as his mother did when he was upset. As she held him, she spoke to him quietly, acknowledging that he was upset and wanted his mother to stay. As he became calmer, Ahmed started to look around at the other babies, and Miriam talked about what they were doing. As he seemed particularly interested in Esme playing with a basket of chains, she sat with Ahmed next to Esme and supported him as he started to explore them, gradually becoming engrossed by the chains.


The revised EYFS states that 'A secure, safe and happy childhood is important in its own right'(DfE 2012, p2) and babies' relationships with their key people are crucial to this. Though we inherit some characteristics such as our temperament, how these develop is affected by the interactions we experience as we grow. We have known about the importance of relationships and secure attachments for many years. The work of Bowlby (1953) stressed the importance of the main carer and Rutter's work demonstrated that though the main attachment is important, children can form multiple attachments (1979). Goldschmied (1994) highlighted how important having a special person, a key person, at nursery is in providing a sense of security, and this is reflected in the EYFS Safeguarding and Welfare requirements.

Example: settling in

At Thomas Coram, staff put a lot of thought and energy into developing strong key person relationships with the babies in their care and their parents. Once a baby is offered a place at the centre, there is an opportunity for parents and baby to come on induction visits. We find these visits are especially important for the parents, as it is a chance to get to know each other as well as the staff.

Just before the baby is due to start, the key person and a senior member of staff will visit the family at home. The visit is an opportunity for the key person to start to build their relationship with the baby in a familiar environment and to find out more about their needs and interests from the people who know them best.

The first month in the centre is seen as a settling period. While we have an outline programme for settling, it is amended to reflect the needs of each child and family. During the settling period, the baby gradually increases the length of time that they spend with their key person until they are attending for the whole session.

The key person draws on the information from the home visit to organise sleep and feeding routines and plan experiences that reflect the individual baby's needs. At the end of the first month, the parents and key person meet to discuss how the baby has settled and to identify what they need next.

Babies are assigned a key person when they start and as far as possible that person stays with them throughout their time in the centre, moving with them from babies to toddlers and then into kindergarten. This enables this key relationship to grow and deepen.


Parents are the most important people in babies' lives, and babies are at the centre of their parents' lives in the vast majority of cases. Placing a young baby in nursery, especially if this is their first child, is a big step for many parents. Building a strong relationship with parents as well as babies is crucial, and the time invested enables parents to leave feeling confident that their baby is well cared for. We have found that the settling period, when parents are spending time with us, is very important and should be not skimped on.

Many parents of babies will be working or studying, which presents particular challenges. It may not be possible for these parents to come to workshops and meetings during the working day, but this can be addressed by offering some at the end of the working day or on Saturdays. Feedback from our parents is that having dates well ahead is especially helpful. Technology also gives us the opportunity to keep in touch and share what the children are doing.


A secure relationship with their key person is vital for babies, but as they grow babies increasingly enjoy the company of other children, including older friends. To encourage friendships, we group children of a similar age together in a key group. We find that they are more likely to share interests and this provides a wonderful opportunity to build friendships and learn from each other.

Children can stay with us until they are five years old and will usually remain with children from the key group that they started in. The chance to grow together, sharing key experiences, produces strong, emotionally supportive relationships.

Babies also benefit from opportunities to mix with older children and other adults as their confidence in the setting grows.

Example: mixing across different age groups

Over the years, we have explored different ways of grouping children. When we first opened, we had very separate baby rooms. While these provided a secure space for our youngest children, we observed that babies with older siblings missed time with them, and as they grew, babies were looking longingly out of the baby room at the older children. We now group the children in two wings, with each wing having a baby, toddler and kinder room and shared conservatory.

While each age group has a space that reflects their particular needs, they also have the opportunity to mix with other age groups during the day. The opportunity to see what the older children are doing seems to motivate the babies to try new things, and the support that the older children give their younger friends gives them the security to persist with challenges until they succeed.


In the revised EYFS framework (2012), emotional development is part of the Prime area Personal, Social and Emotional Development. There is a strong link between supporting children's emotional needs and promoting other aspects of their development, and Gerhardt (2004) points out that love is essential to brain development in the early years of life.

Neuroscience suggests that strong emotions and emotional behaviour have a negative impact on our ability to learn, and effective learning depends on the ability to regulate our feelings (Tickell 2011). Learning is a social experience and the ability to interact successfully gives children access to different opportunities to learn with and from others.


Under the revised EYFS, practitioners are expected to respond to the different ways that children learn, including three Characteristics of Effective Learning:

  • playing and exploring
  • active learning and
  • creating and thinking critically.

For children to develop these characteristics, it is vital that they experience emotional security. Only if they feel secure will babies 'Be willing to "have a go"':

  • initiating activities
  • seeking challenge
  • showing a 'can do' attitude
  • taking a risk, engaging in new experiences, and learning by trial and error' (Early Education 2012).

If they are anxious and uncertain, they will not be able to take a risk. Equally, developing aspects of the characteristics promotes babies' emotional development by helping them to feel a sense of control.


A baby who feels secure and has strong attachments will be able to explore a wider environment, promoting physical development. They will want to reach out, move about and practise physical skills, such as crawling. Building relationships with their key persons and others encourages communication and language, and through these communications babies' ability to self-regulate starts to develop.


Understanding the World and Expressive Arts and Design both involve having the confidence to explore, try new experiences and materials, make mistakes and learn from them. Babies are born curious and want to make sense of the world around them but whether they have the confidence to do so will depend on how well we support their emotional development.

Mathematics is about seeing patterns, and the chance to explore confidently encourages this. Opportunities to share books are important in our baby rooms - often babies will give a favourite book to an adult to indicate that they want to spend time with them. The experience of curling up together and sharing a book strengthens the bond between them.



The physical environment we create for the youngest children can enhance or hinder emotional development. Each baby room at Thomas Coram is organised to provide a secure space where the babies can relax and feel they belong. Each includes:

  • a special key-group space with photos from each child's family and home life
  • furniture that encourages snuggling in, such as cushions, adult-sized sofas and easy chairs
  • fabrics, cushions and throws that reflect home life and also minimise background sound
  • resources that represent the various backgrounds of the children - for example, music and songs from a range of cultures and books in home languages
  • a consistent place for each child at meal and rest times
  • resources in baskets and low units to enable babies to access them easily, reducing frustrations and encouraging a sense of control
  • the option to close the space to other people when a baby is feeling overwhelmed.

Babies also benefit from opportunities to explore a wider world as their confidence in the setting grows. Babies at Thomas Coram are able to move easily from their own room to the shared conservatory space and garden if they wish and will also visit the older children's rooms.

All the staff need to be aware of the particular safety needs of our youngest children for this approach to be successful and safe, but the option to explore and meet new children and adults has increased children's confidence and sense of belonging.


Routines are important to babies because they offer predictability in what can sometimes feel an uncertain world. But routines must give priority to children's emotional well-being, rather than adults' convenience. Essential points for us are:

  • ensuring that either the key person or a co-person that the baby knows is available at important times - for example, when the baby arrives at the centre and at meal and sleep times. Leaving a baby with an unfamiliar adult who does not know and understand their particular needs does not enhance well-being
  • incorporating individual babies' needs - for example, different sleep and feeding patterns, and being responsive as each baby grows and develops
  • organising the day to support sibling relationships through opportunities to be together, especially at the start and end of the day
  • keeping the routine under review and drawing on our observations of the children's responses to ensure that it is still meeting their needs


Being a successful key person for our youngest children is a demanding role. It requires a high level of responsiveness, which can be hard at the end of a long shift or week, and the ability to manage and contain our own feelings. Supportive colleagues and opportunities to reflect away from the children are crucial. The EYFS requirement for effective supervision, which provides support, coaching and training for practitioners, recognises this.

Our growing understanding of how babies learn and develop makes this an exciting age group to work with and the opportunity to see a child grow from babyhood into a confident and competent young child, knowing that we had a role in that process, is immensely rewarding.


  • Child Care and the Growth of Love by J Bowlby (1953), London: Penguin Books
  • Early Years Learning and Development Literature Review by M Evangelou, K Sylva, M Kyriacou, M Wild and G Glenny (2009). DCSF
  • How Babies Think by A Gopnik, A Meltzoff, and P Kuhl (2001). London: Phoenix
  • Maternal deprivation, 1972-1978: new findings, new concepts, new approaches in Child Development, by M Rutter (1979), Vol 50, No 2, p283-305.
  • People Under Three: young children in day care by E Goldschmied and S Jackson (2004). London: Routledge
  • Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, DfE (2012). DfE
  • The Tickell Review - The Early Years: Foundations for Life, Health and Learning.by C Tickell (2011). London: DfE.
  • Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain by S Gerhardt (2004). London: Routledge.

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