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Promoting A Sense Of Self: Infants And Toddlers

Infants and toddlers need ongoing opportunities to feel cared for and to experience and celebrate success with newly mastered skills. This lesson will further describe what sense of self means for infants and toddlers and identify different ways adults can help promote sense of self for young children.

  • Describe a sense of self for infants and toddlers.
  • Identify ways caregivers and families can promote and support the development of sense of self for infants and toddlers.
  • Learn ways to address the needs of diverse learners and families.



As highlighted in Lesson One, a sense of self includes the roles, attributes, behaviors, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves (Ylvisaker, 2006). Many factors influence who we are, including our occupations, hobbies, affiliations, abilities, personality traits, and spiritual beliefs. How we identify ourselves is largely the result of our immediate surroundings and significant relationships, especially for young children. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you have significant influence on how infants and toddlers think and feel about themselves, both while in your care and long after they depart for preschool.

Sense of Self – Infants and Toddlers

Infants and toddlers are always learning and each experience they have helps create meaning of their world and influences what happens next. As memories of experiences over time add up and come together, the infant begins to develop a sense of self, or an internal picture of who they are, “This is me when I feel safe and happy with my caregiver—they hold me close and my face is smiling.” Developing a sense of self is a blending of many things, such as the young child’s temperament, sensory and physical processing abilities, and the surrounding social, emotional, and physical environment. Donna S. Wittmer and Sandy Petersen note that, “the development of a sense of self is understood to occur during interactions with others through moment-by-moment experiences of emotional communication. Babies learn about themselves as they learn about the feelings of others” (2013, p. 120). How adults care for infants and toddlers sets a foundation for the child's long-term well-being. These interactions and the degree of security children feel early in their lives cannot be overstated. Early experiences influence a child’s “brain architecture,” with responsive caregiving serving as the “brick and mortar” for both social and emotional as well as cognitive and language capacities (Center on the Developing Child, n.d.).

The earliest sense of self is formed as a result of interactions with families and caregivers. As discussed in the Social & Emotional Development course, infants use signals such as crying, smiling, cooing, or moving their bodies to let their caregivers know their needs. How caregivers respond to these cues sends messages to the infant such as, “You are safe, loved and valued” or inversely, “You are unimportant.” These messages influence the infant’s future behaviors and attitudes. When families and caregivers are consistently responsive to an infant’s cues in a warm and caring manner, the infant becomes secure, confident, and happy, while the infant who receives consistently negative or mixed messages may become fearful and depressed. This responsive process continues as the infant grows into a toddler and then into a preschooler. It occurs moment-to-moment during interactions, and influences how infants and toddlers expect others to be, and how they expect to be treated. To learn more about responsive caregiving, you can review the Infant and Toddler Social & Emotional Development course.

Likewise, though how it happens may vary, all children develop a sense of self and self-worth. For very young children, their foundational sense of self develops around four broad perspectives (Reschke, 2019):

  • I Am My Physical Self
    You’ve almost certainly seen babies playing with their toes or fascinated by their waving fingers. Infants are learning about their physical bodies through touch, movement, and the sensory experiences they have when seeing, feeling, and hearing what their bodies can do. By age 2, children recognize themselves in photos and are making distinctions between themselves and others.
  • I Am What I Can Do
    Infants and toddlers are learning to move, crawl, and walk. They are learning to babble, coo, and talk. In this period of rapid change, babies are fascinated with what they can do. Imagine how proud an infant is to pull themself to a standing position, and how happy they are to view the world from this new perspective.
  • I Am What Others Say I Am
    While infants and toddlers are pleased with their many new skills, the adults around them are also likely to attach words and labels to what they are doing. By describing infants and toddlers, grown-ups are helping to form a sense of self. Imagine a caregiver saying, “Look how tall you are! You can reach the book! You’re getting so big.” Children are learning who they are by how others describe them. Infants and toddlers also learn that names are labels for themselves and for different people. After many repetitions, children internalize their own name as a representation of themselves.
  • I Am My Connections to People, Places, and Things
    Infants and toddlers are also developing their sense of self through how they relate to other people, things, and places. Children feel and look for their connection to others. Young children also identify with places, such as their home, their classroom, or their crib. This makes frequent changes in living or caregiving arrangements very stressful for infants and toddlers. We have all seen children who feel a strong connection to a special toy, pacifier, or blankie. These things help children define who they are and can leave them feeling out of sorts and stressed if that object is not available or is taken away.

Remembering the Brain

Remember from Lesson One that the adults and environments babies and young children encounter affect the way their brains are develop. While children and adults continue to learn and grow throughout their lives, 90% of brain growth occurs within the first five years of life (Brown & Jernigan, 2012). This makes your time with the infants, toddlers, and families you serve incredibly valuable. The interactions and experiences that young children have with you and other important adults in their lives will shape how they interact with their world through adulthood. When caregivers are warm, responsive, and engage with children positively and consistently, infant and toddler brains are able to learn and thrive. If the adults are disengaged and repeatedly respond to the children negatively, infant and toddler brains will be prone to fear and anxiety.

Diverse Learners and Families

No two children or families will ever be the same in your care setting, and meeting the needs of each infant and toddler can seem daunting. There is not one best practice to ensure children develop a healthy sense of self; it requires multiple experiences over time. While you will need to pay special attention to helping children develop a positive and strong sense of self this can be embedded naturally within many routines and best practices you do every day. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you can support the diverse learners and families in your care by: 

  • Providing infants and toddlers predictable routines that emphasize continuity between their home and the care setting
  • Using a young child’s home language within the care setting (for example, sing a familiar song to an infant or toddler who is experiencing distress)
  • Place photographs of families near the sleeping area of infants and toddlers
  • Respond to children’s movements, sounds, and words
  • Keep caregivers consistent, and let families know of any changes in caregivers or schedules
  • Speak and listen to families daily, both to communicate information (e.g., how much a child had from their bottle), but also to share stories about a child’s day and discuss their growth

In Lesson One, you learned about the ways families and caregiving practices are influenced by culture. For example, one family may feel a baby should never be put on the floor, whereas others may feel this is a normal play space for babies. These values and beliefs guide the ways adults respond to infants and toddlers, which in turn affects the early messages an infant or toddler receives. In this way, culture shapes who young children are. While all children and youth need their families and caregivers to help them grow and develop, children may learn to express emotions and display behaviors in different and culturally appropriate ways. 

Brazelton and Greenspan (2000) emphasize that when seven irreducible needs (fundamental requirements of a healthy early childhood) are met, young children are able to feel safe and relate to others: 

  • Ongoing nurturing relationships
  • Physical protection, safety, and regulation
  • Experiences tailored to individual differences
  • Developmentally appropriate experiences
  • Limit-setting, structure, and expectations
  • Stable communities and cultural continuity
  • Adults to protect the future

As an infant and toddler caregiver, you are a great source of support and understanding for families.

Promoting Family Participation in Children's Development of Self

Considering that families have the largest impact on young children’s development, it is critical that they are actively involved in efforts that promote their children’s sense of self. You can help families understand the significance of their participation in activities that foster their children’s sense of self and overall well-being. At the same time, it is also very important to be sensitive to families’ varying needs, circumstances, values, backgrounds, beliefs, cultural practices, and traditions. While you may have certain opinions about what children should or should not do, it is important to be considerate of families and try to understand and honor experiences or points of view that may be different from yours. As a caring and resourceful professional, you need to be flexible and think of alternative ways to positively engage with all families in your program.

When it comes to families of children with disabilities, communication is particularly essential. You should gather as much information as possible about the child, including accommodations that the family has used in the past and what the family’s desires are for their child. Equip yourself with credible resources on the disability so you have a better understanding of what it means for the child and their care. Be positive and convey confidence and readiness to learn and work with other professionals such as physical therapists. Invite the family to share concerns or ask questions.

Challenge yourself to get to know every family in your care. You cannot appreciate what you do not know or cannot see. Reach out to children’s families and find out about their priorities. Focus on their strengths and support them in their struggles. Instead of judging, be sensitive about why family members believe or act the way they do.


As you watch the first video, consider how you help support the diverse set of infants’ or toddlers’ in your setting.

Supporting A Sense of Self: Diverse Learners And Families

Caregivers demonstrate how they support diverse learners and families in their programs to aid in the development of infants’ and toddlers’ positive sense of self.

Next, watch as these caregivers demonstrate and describe ways they use mirrors and pictures to support infants’ and toddlers’ self-knowledge.

Supporting A Sense of Self: Mirrors

Watch as these caregivers talk to and play with children in front of mirrors and use pictures to support infants’ and toddlers’ self-understanding.

As a caregiver, consider how you could incorporate mirrors and pictures into your environment and daily interactions to support young children’s positive self-images. Mirrors and pictures can provide a wonderful medium to help infants’ and toddlers’ understand their bodies, skills and actions. As you talk with children about these concepts, remember to stay sensitive to the messages you give them; caregivers may sometimes unknowingly reinforce gender, ethnic, racial, or ability stereotypes unless they remain reflective about the language they use in these interactions. For example, the caregivers above let these female infants know they are “pretty girls” when looking in the mirror. Consider what other kinds of self-understanding you would want to help these girls develop. For example, could they also be strong, persistent, and smart girls?


Below are some steps you can take to support a positive, secure, and confident sense of self for the infants and toddlers in your care, and support their families’ ability to do the same.

  • Provide consistent, predictable experiences for infants and toddlers to support a sense of belonging.
  • Identify family strengths in support of their infant or toddler’s sense of self.
  • Focus on infants and toddlers within their cultural context.
  • Provide low-level mirrors and other reflective toys and describe what infants see to enable them to recognize their own reflection.


Within the section Diverse Learners and Families in this lesson, you read about seven irreducible needs (Brazelton and Greenspan 2000) for children to be able to feel safe and relate to others. In the Reflecting on Irreducible Needs of Young Children activity, choose one of the irreducible needs of children and discuss what would happen to an infant or toddler, from the child’s perspective, if this need is or is not met. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


As an infant and toddler caregiver, you work with diverse children and families. In the Promoting a Sense of Self: Scenarios activity, read each of the scenarios, reflect on the child and family’s sense of self, and address how you would promote a positive sense of self. Compare your responses with the suggested responses in the key. When you are finished, share your responses with your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Finish this statement: An infant’s and toddler’s sense of self…
True or False? Repeated, early stressful experiences can alter the development of a young child’s brain.
Your co-worker asks you for suggestions of how to support the diverse children and families in their care. What do you say?
References & Resources

Brain development. (n.d.) Zero to Three.

Brown, T. T., & Jernigan, T. L. (2012). Brain development during the preschool years. Neuropsychology Review, 22(4), 313–333.

Center on the Developing Child. (n.d.). Brain architecture. Harvard University. 

National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (n.d.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Copple, C., & Bredekamp, S., with Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2011). Basics of developmentally appropriate practice: An introduction for teachers of infants and toddlers. NAEYC.

Gopnik, A. (2010). The philosophical infant: What children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life. Picador Publishing.

Gopnik, A. (2012). Nurturing brain development from birth to 3. Zero to Three, 32(3), 12–17.

Koralek, D., & Gillespie, L. G. (2011). Spotlight on Infants and Toddlers. NAEYC.

Reschke, K. (January, 2019). Who am I? Developing a sense of self and belonging. Zero to Three.

Brazelton T. B., & Greenspan, S. I, (2000). The irreducible needs of children: What every child must have to grow, learn, and flourish. Perseus Pub.