How to engage a baby

When you share a laugh with your baby, it can be one the warmest feelings as a parent. But is this a genuine mutual exchange, and how does it come about?

This is a video of what is now a classic experiment in developmental psychology. It shows a mother happily engaging face-to-face with an equally happy baby. The mother then ceases all facial engagement – the “still face” – to which the baby reacts by trying, with all its might, to reestablish the happy interactions. It’s quite a marked and powerful effect:

A historical review of the experiment quotes the researchers who first documented the effect:

“the infant first “orients toward the mother” and “greets her expectantly.” But then, when the mother “fails to respond appropriately,” the infant …

… rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.”

The experiment, in this form, was first presented at a scientific conference in 1975, but it wasn’t the first to document what happened when infants are exposed to varying social interactions. It was, however, the first to use “then-novel videotape technology” on the conference hall’s big screen. Adamson and Frick, in their historical review, suggest that the  immediate and dramatic illustration of the phenomenon contributed to the broad interest this experiment gained. An early lesson in the power of ‘modern’ technology for effective science communication and to maximise research impact.

This may all seem a little obvious to some parents. You may feel that you don’t need a psychologist with a video camera to tell you that a baby is happiest when you are engaging them face-to-face. But there are a number of reasons why the methodical description of this effect has had profound and lasting influence.  

What this experiment first showed, by deliberately manipulating the parent’s engagement, was that the baby is an active player in this exchange. The infant’s social behaviours can influence the parent’s level of engagement, just as the parent can influence the baby, and it can subtly alter these depending on the context. It’s not simply the parent reacting to the baby’s randomly generated cues. It has even been detected in babies as young as a few weeks old.

As Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal says:

“The still face experiment demonstrated that very young infants already have several basic building blocks of social cognition in place. It suggested that they have some sense of the relationship between facial expression and emotion, that they have some primitive social understanding, and that they are able to regulate their own affect and attention to some extent. The infants’ attempts to re-engage with their caregivers also suggest that they are able to plan and execute simple goal-directed behaviors.”

But one reason why this experiment has been so important and enduring is that it provided a standard and reproducible way of measuring children’s social emotional development.

By using the same set-up time-and-time again, it has shown how a child’s social and emotional development becomes richer as they grow older. The response becomes increasingly complex with age, and can include deftly timed facial cues, dampened smiles, sideways glances at their parent and yawns. Adamson and Frick cite a lovely example for the original set of experiments in which a five-month old boy, upon encountering a still face, stopped being wary and…

“…looked at the mother and laughed briefly. After this brief tense laugh, he paused, looked at her soberly, and then laughed again, loud and long, throwing his head back as he did so. At this point, the mother became unable to maintain an unresponsive still face.”

An experience I’m sure many a parent can relate to when – armed with a stern face – they try earnestly to tell off their child, only to be met with a cheeky grin or giggle!

The experiment has also allowed researchers to deconstruct these parent-baby social interactions into visual, auditory and tactile components. Vision and hearing, it seems, is especially important as children get older, but touch can be enough to, at least partially, lessen an infant’s anxiety when confronted with a still face.

Nevertheless, a still face is usually enough to produce the basic negative reaction in a child, even if it’s in response to their mother, father, a stranger or someone on television. Children make a distinction, however, for inanimate objects, even if they appear quite human-like, demonstrating their ability to form genuine social relationships.

This experimental set-up has also revealed possible negative consequences of a parent’s still face. According to Adamson and Frick, children actually show a more dramatic reaction to a still face than to a brief period of separation or to situations in which the parent interrupts interactions to talk to a researcher. Babies assimilate and react to a negative social cue, rather than simply becoming distressed at the lack of stimulation.

The “still face” experiment has shown its use in further understanding various developmental disorders, such as Down’s syndrome, deafness and autism, as well the effects of environmental conditions like infants exposed to cocaine prenatally or to depressed mothers.

The still face experiment has been used to ask questions about how early social and emotional engagement may affect later behaviour. The strength of an infant’s still face effect has been linked to their mother’s normal sensitivity and interactive style, and it may predict the degree of later infant attachment, depression or anxiety, and even behavioural problems.

Clearly, parents who may have a lower level of engagement, such as those experiencing postpartum depression, should not be guilt-tripped, especially as this could have an exacerbating effect. But the still face experiment has shown that simple procedures can help in these situations – depressed mothers who are encouraged to provide more touch stimulation are often able to offset the lack of visual or auditory engagement to bring about more positive social interations.

As Ed Tronick – one of the original researchers of the “still face” experiment – says on his website:

“An infant’s exposure to “good, bad, and ugly” interactions with the mother, as repeatedly communicated by her facial expressions or lack of expression (i.e., a still-face) has long-term consequences for the infant’s confidence and curiosity, or social emotional development, with which to experience and engage the world.

Though let’s not forget the role of fathers, or other partners, either.

[Thanks to mum-in-law Jenny (once again) for the video and @matthewcobb for the Adamson and Frick article]

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One thought on “How to engage a baby

  1. rick ackerly

    Outstanding, thorough and thoughtful article about what we have learned in recent decades from still-face experiments not only about kids and babies, but about what it means to be human. Thank you.

    Reply

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