Related to
Early Years

Authors: Kate Dent Rennie and Sue Wright.

From birth babies have some sophisticated social capacities,1 which they use to maintain a relationship with their primary caregiver. These social capacities are established in the days and weeks after birth. This three-part series shares some insights into baby’s amazing capabilities.

Right from the beginning babies are capable of distinguishing between different people’s voices. They can detect the different ways in which we express ourselves. They are sensitive to rhythm2 intonation,3 and other features of speech.4 A baby less than 3 days old will choose to listen to a recording of his/her own mother’s voice rather than another mother’s voice,5 and they prefer to listen to her reading a familiar story (one read aloud during the pregnancy) over an unfamiliar one.6 

Newborn babies also know and prefer their mother’s smell, and will turn their heads towards the smell of their own mother’s breast milk, rather than that of another mother.7 

Infants have an early tendency to orient towards faces.8 A study of face processing found that babies of just 2 months old are using the majority of the parts of the brain that adults use in face processing.9 They are already sophisticated readers of people.

Infants are sensitive after birth to another’s gaze, this is reflected in their preference for looking at faces that have their eyes open rather than closed10 and a tendency to orient towards direct eye contact from others.11 

By three months infants will orient more to direct gaze and a fearful adult expression than direct gaze with a neutral face or averted gaze and either neutral or fearful expression.12 Their survival instinct to identify danger and seek support from people is already well established.

As Helen Fisher quoted “Touch is the ‘mother of all senses’”. Infants smile more to touch with an interactive face reaction than to still face and touch. Touch can reinforce and maintain high rates of infant eye contact responses, vocalisations and smiles during face-to-face contact with their mother.13

From birth, infants work to maintain an optimal level of arousal, keeping themselves in a comfortable range. 

The limited strategies they have available to them to do this include: choosing what to look at, sucking, self-touching and restricting their range of facial expressiveness.14 For example, when faced with a display of flashing lights, infants in a low state of arousal (fed & swaddled) look longer at the lights as the tempo of the flashing increases, whereas infants in a high state of arousal (unfed & unswaddled) look less as the tempo increases.15

In face-to-face interactions, infants use brief visual disengagement (i.e. looking away) from their parent, to regulate their arousal. A few seconds before the infant averts his gaze, his heart rate accelerates. Within 5 seconds of looking away (if the mother responds by becoming less active and ‘waiting’), his heart rate returns to baseline, and he quickly returns his gaze to her.16

  1. Beebe & Lachmann, 2002
  2. Condon & Sandler, 1974
  3. Morse, 1972
  4. DeCasper & Fifer, 1980
  5. DeCasper & Fifer, 1980
  6. DeCasper & Spence, 1986
  7. McFarlane, 1975, cited by Stern, 1985
  8. Johnson et al.,1991
  9. Tzourio-Mazoyer et al., 2002
  10. Batkia et al., 2000; Schacter & Moscovitch, 1984
  11. Farroni et al., 2002
  12. Hoehl et al., 2008
  13. Parsons et al., 2010
  14. Beebe & Lachmann, 2002
  15. Gardner & Karmel, 1984
  16. Field, 1981

Batkia, A., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Connellan, J., & Ahluwaliab, J. (2000). Is there an innate gaze module? Evidence from human neonates. Infant Behavior and Development, 23, 223-229. 

Beebe, B., & Lachmann, F. M. (2002). Infant Research and Adult Treatment: Co-constructing interactions. London: The Analytic Press.

Condon, W. S., & Sandler, L. W. (1974). Neonate movement is synchronized with adult speech: interactional participation and language acquisition. Science, 183(4120), 99-101. 

DeCasper, A. J., & Fifer, W. P. (1980). Of Human bonding: New infants prefer their mothers’ voices. Science, 208(4448), 1174-1176. 

DeCasper, A. J., & Spence, M. J. (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development, 9(2), 133-150. 

Farroni, T., Csibra, G., Simion, F., & Johnson, M. H. (2002). Eye contact detection in humans from birth. Proceedings of the National. Academy of  Science, 99(14), 9602-9605. 

Field, T. (1981). Infant gaze aversion and heart rate during face-to-face interactions. Infant Behavior and Development, 4, 307-315. 

Gardner, J. M., & Karmel, B. Z. (1984). Arousal effects on visual preferences in neonates. . Developmental Psychology, 20(3), 374-377. 

Hoehl, S., Wiese, L., & Striano, T. (2008). Young infants’ neural processing of objects Is affected by eye gaze direction and emotional expression. Plos One, 3(6), e2389. 

Johnson, M. H., Posner, M. I., & Rothbart, M. K. (1991). Components of visual orienting in early infancy: Contingency learning, anticipatory looking, and disengaging. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 3(4), 335-344. 

Morse, P. A. (1972). The discrimination of speech and nonspeech stimuli in early infancy. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 14(3), 477-492. 

Parsons, C. E., Young, K. S., Murray, L., Stein, A., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2010). The functional neuranatomy of the evolving parent-infant relationship. Progress in Neurobiology, 91(3), 220 – 241. 

Schacter, D. L., & Moscovitch, M. (1984). Infants, amnesics, and dissociable memory systems Infant memory (pp. 173-216): Springer.

Stern, D. N. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York (Basic Books) 1985. 

Tzourio-Mazoyer, N., De Schonen, S., Crivello, F., Reutter, B., Aujard, Y., & Mazoyer, B. (2002). Neural correlates of woman face processing by 2-month-old infants. Neuroimage, 15(2), 454-461.