‘Shareable feelings’ promote infant development

A study by York University researchers has found that infants between one and three months old develop more rapidly when adults refrain from imitating their noises and facial expressions, and socialize with them instead.

“Parents often imitate babies’ cooing and babbling sounds in an attempt to converse on a level infants can understand,” says York psychology Professor Maria Legerstee (right), who developed the study. “We’re finding out that such mimicking is only effective if adults also tune into their child’s emotions.”

Her findings indicate that babies respond with enhanced social awareness when mothers are attuned to their moods. They recognize their mothers more quickly and prefer to interact with them. Legerstee says “baby talk” (characterized by the use of exaggerated facial expressions and high pitch) is a valuable teaching tool – but only as part of this emotional exchange.

So, how exactly do you socialize with your child to trigger these improved emotional responses?

“It’s important to follow your baby’s communicative rhythm and to focus on sharing emotions, particularly those that are positive,” says Legerstee. “Take turns in vocalizing, and focus on the meaning of the interaction rather than on their physical responses. Overall, try to be child-centered, rather than self-centered,” she says.

This “shareable feeling”, as researchers call it, is what helps infants to develop socially. “When parents fail to share genuine emotions with their babies, the exchange gets short-circuited. Infants tune out,” says Legerstee.

She notes that over the long term, this short-circuiting can also affect babies’ cognitive development.

The study used digital cameras to capture and code infant-caregiver interactions, recording the most minute changes in babies’ behaviours, including start and end times of smiles, gazes and vocalizations. Some scientists had theorized that infants identify with others primarily through similarities to themselves, and that this lays the foundation for their understanding of other minds.

Legerstee tested the model of “affective exchange” put forward by social interactionist theorists, namely, that infants are involved early in ongoing social relationships with caregivers. The resulting study, titled “Contingency, Imitation, and Affect Sharing: Foundations of Infants’ Social Awareness”, was co-authored by York PhD student Gabriela Markova. It was published in the journal Developmental Psychology in January 2006.