Stop! How babies understand danger

Ever wondered when it becomes safe to remove the stair gate and why? Here we discuss when we begin to identify danger and how parents can help children understand risk. 

It’s safe to say our ability to detect threat is a vital survival mechanism (LoBue and DeLoache, 2010). But how much of this is a learnt behaviour (‘sweetie, put the razor down please’)? And how much of it is instinctive? Here we look at some of the ways babies and infants understand danger.

Identifying some threats is instinctive

It might be surprising but research shows that we might find some things scary from birth. Infants spend more time paying attention to ‘threat-relevant’ stimulus like snakes and spiders than things that are not as risky. In two experiments, infants aged eight to 14 months responded more quickly to snakes than they did flowers (LoBue and DeLoache, 2010).

Babies can detect risk through facial expressions

If we’re scared, we’ll obviously make a different face than if we’re happy. So what?

It turns out that showing fear is a great way to let the kids know there might be something wrong. Researchers found that by seven months, babies look for longer at faces that show fear than those showing happiness (Leppänen et al, 2016). Maybe that’s not so surprising when you think of it. But fear isn’t the only emotion that keeps babies fixated.

From four months old, babies spend a longer time looking at angry faces than at happy ones. It looks like we’re hard-wired to respond to faces that are showing negative emotions (Leppänen et al, 2018).

This research appears to show we focus on threat from an early age and it’s connected with our brain development, not only what we’re taught. What we pay attention to (and for how long) may also shape how we respond to different experiences. Studies suggest this could be useful in helping us understand and frame our world (Pérez-Edgar et al, 2017).

What are you so scared of?

We’ve already talked about where a fear of spiders and snakes could come from. Here we look at some common scary subjects and find out why they’re so frightening…

Fear of everything

Ok, so that’s a little unfair. But when we’re newborn babies, everything can be scary. You’ve just spent the best part of a year in your own private apartment with nourishment on tap. Then suddenly you’re born and it’s bright, it’s loud, it’s hot, it’s cold. You also have lots of weird things to see, hear, smell and touch. Talk about intense. No wonder babies cry so much.

Fear of strangers

Along with separation anxiety, a fear of strangers is common in children from six months to three years old. (NHS, 2018). It happens when your baby realises just how dependent they are on you and the other people in their circle of trust.

Remember how many new experiences are happening to a baby every day. When a stranger comes into a baby’s world, this new thing can be very scary, especially if mum, dad or grandma disappear for a moment (NHS, 2018).

Fear of heights

Where does our fear of heights come from? One study tested babies who couldn’t yet crawl. Researchers put one group of babies in a (baby friendly) go-cart and drove them around. The other group stayed still.

The go-cart group developed more of a sense of fear when they were near a high edge. Why? Researchers think this is because those go-cart babies developed a bigger dependence on the visual information they were receiving than those who were motionless. And when they were put near a ledge, they lost some of that visual information, making them more anxious (Dahl et al, 2013).

How to evaluate risk

We all have our own tolerance to risk. Some of us live in city centres. Some of us anti-bac our hands after stroking a dog. Some of us drive to work every day. Some of us are BASE jumpers.

Parents tell us that how they approach risk with their kids is affected by what they see as risky… 

“I find it really hard when I see other mums protecting their kids from dogs, even if they’re super-placid. I grew up with dogs and I’ve always let Ceri approach and stroke any dog I think is well trained. It’s all about your personal experience.” Maeve, mum to Ceri, nine months

There’s no rulebook on teaching our little ones which risks are acceptable. But they will want to explore the world, so you’ll probably be fishing things out of their mouths and rugby tackling them away from the fire. From ovens to swings to a dodgy kerbstone, the world can look like a dangerous place.

Calculate the risk

Every parent needs to balance keeping their child safe against letting them grow, develop and explore. For example, letting your toddler climb the stairs. You probably wouldn’t let them if you’re in another room. But if you’re stood directly behind them, ready to catch a misplaced step, then you might feel confident they’ll be OK.

“We taught Kitty ‘Hot!’ from about 12 months. We’d point at the oven, or a radiator, or the fire and make a painful expression and go ‘Oooh, hot, ow!’ and it seems to have stuck. I just hope she doesn’t grow up being scared of radiators.” Bevis, dad to Kitty, 14 months

Is your toddler desperate to climb up the steps to the little playground slide? Chance are the slide is designed for toddlers and the ground is soft. You’ll also be close by to intervene, so the likelihood of a major accident are probably pretty low. But as always, it’s your decision.

Feeling confident that you’re doing the right thing can be tough so trust your instincts. They’re cleverer than you might think.

Is fear always useful?

While fear has its place in understanding risk and highlighting danger, fear may sometimes seem illogical. Some children develop a fear of non-threatening objects and situations because of how they experience them. For example, some children develop a fear of noisy objects like hand dryers and vacuum cleaners, and react as though these things are a personal threat.

Many children overcome these fears as they get older. They develop a greater understanding of the difference between perceived threat and actual threat.

What can we do to help an anxious child?

The NHS (2016) suggests that for infants, distraction is one of the best ways to help anxiety. As they get older, talking and showing understanding of the feelings can help. As can working together to develop coping strategies.

Showing empathy and understanding will allow your child to come to you for support. If you feel worried about your child’s levels of anxiety, talk to their health visitor or GP for more support.

This page was last reviewed in April 2019.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Dahl A, Campos JJ, Anderson DI, Uchiyama I, Witherington DC, Ueno M, Poutrain-Lejeune L, Barbu-Roth M. (2013) The epigenesis of wariness of heights. Psychological Science. 24(7):1361-1367. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4374659/ [Accessed 21st March 2019]

Leppänen JM, Cataldo JK, Bosquet Enlow M,  Nelson CA. (2018) Early development of attention to threat-related facial expressions. PloS one, 13(5):e0197424. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5955579/ [Accessed 21st March 2019]

LoBue V, DeLoache JS. (2010) Superior detection of threat-relevant stimuli in infancy.

Dev Sci. 13(1):221-228. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20121878 [Accessed 21st March 2019]

NHS. (2016) Anxiety in children. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/anxiety-in-children/ [Accessed 21st March 2019]

Pérez-Edgar K, Morales S, LoBue V, Taber-Thomas BC, Allen EK, Brown KM, Buss KA. (2017) The impact of negative affect on attention patterns to threat across the first two years of life. Dev Psychol. 53(12):2219–2232. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5705474/ [Accessed 21st March 2019]

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