The social world of newborns:

A guide for the science-minded parent

© 2009 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Yes, newborns spend most of their time sleeping and and eating. Taking care of a new baby can feel like a series of mechanical tasks.

But babies are much more than survival machines.

At birth, they are primed and ready for social input. Even if you are too tired too notice, your loving care has profound effects on your baby’s developing mind.

Decades ago, this seemed doubtful. People assumed that newborn babies were empty-headed, passive lumps. Babies didn’t really have minds—not yet—and they certainly didn’t respond to social stimuli.

Today we know better. It appears that babies are born with remarkable social capacities that help them

• identify voices and faces

• communicate, and

• develop an understanding of other minds

So neonates aren’t blank slates, and the people who care for newborns are more than diaper-changers. Think of a baby as a computer than comes preloaded with software designed to detect patterns in the social environment. This software helps guide infant development.

Here are some examples of the social feats that babies can perform within the first few days of life.

Newborns show a preference for “baby talk”

When adults talk to babies, they often adopt a special style of speaking—one that is slower, more melodic, and more repetitive. This “infant-directed speech” makes it easier for babies to understand your emotional intentions. It may also help them learn to speak.

Interestingly, babies seem to prefer this baby talk. In an experiment by Robin Cooper and Richard Aslin, 2-day old infants were presented with audio recordings of adult speech. In some trials, babies heard infant-directed speech. In other trials, they heard adult-directed speech.

The babies could control how long each playback lasted by turning their heads toward a loudspeaker. And—guess what—the babies turned their heads longer when they heard infant-directed speech (Cooper and Aslin 1990).

Newborns recognize their mothers’ voices.

Fetuses can hear in the womb, and, as a result, newborn babies are already familiar with their mothers’ voices. In experiments using playbacks of recorded voices, newborns prefer their mothers’ voices to the voices of other women (DeCasper and Fifer 1980).

Newborns recognize their native language

Every language has its own characteristic rhythms, and newborns are savvy to them. In an experiment on 4-day old infants, Mehler and colleagues presented French babies with recordings of a bilingual speaker telling the same story—once in French, and once in Russian. The babies—who had “overheard” French in the womb—showed a clear preference for the French version of the story (Mehler et al 1987).

Newborns know about (and prefer to look at) faces

In experiments, new infants have shown a preference for looking at faces and face-like stimuli (e.g., Batki et al 2000; Turati et al 2002). The babies are pretty discriminating, too. For example, they show a preference for faces with open eyes. Given a choice between fearful and smiling faces, newborns look longer at happy faces (Farroni et al 2007).

Newborns may learn to recognize their parents’ faces very quickly.

A newborn can’t see very well. Her vision is blurry, and her visual acuity is sharpest at the edges, rather than the center, of her visual field. Nevertheless, it appears that babies can learn to recognize faces in the first few hours of life.

In one study, researchers presented babies with video playbacks of women’s faces (Bushnell et al 1989). The infants—who were between 12 and 36 hours old—showed a clear preference for watching their mothers’ faces (rather than the faces of strangers).

Newborns prefer to look at people who make direct eye contact

Babies don't always want to stare into your eyes. It can be pretty intense, and babies sometimes break contact when they are tired or overstimulated.

However, like many adults, newborns show a preference for faces that make eye contact. In one experiment, researchers presented infants with a choice of two faces to look at--one with direct gaze, the other with averted gaze. The babies looked longer at the face with direct gaze (Farroni et al 2002).

In another study, newborns looked longer at the photographs of strangers who had previously talked to them -- but only if the talk had been accompanied by the stranger's direct gaze (Guellai and Streri 2011).

The researchers conclude that infant-directed speech may not be enough to really grab a newborn's attention. He may need additional evidence that a person is trying to interact with him -- evidence that eye contact provides.

Newborns become distressed when caregivers are socially unresponsive

To the surprise of many people, recent research suggests that newborns prefer to look at expressive, responsive faces. It’s as if they expect people to react to social interactions by using communicative facial expressions.

Psychologists have a method of testing for this understanding, and it’s called the Still Face paradigm. The procedure begins with an adult interacting in a normal way with the baby. Then the adult suddenly adopts a neutral facial expression.

When Emese Nagy tried this on 90 babies less than 4 days old, she found that newborns were more likely to change their behavior, look away, and show signs of distress (Nagy 2008).

Newborns pay more attention to things that you are looking at

If I follow your gaze, I can infer all sorts of information: What you are looking at, how you feel about it, and what you might do next.

Gaze-following is an important developmental skill for older babies, and recent research suggests that even newborns practice a rudimentary form of it.

In one experiment, Teresa Farroni and colleagues showed newborn babies (ranging in age from 2 to 5 days) pictures of some crude, cartoonish faces with large eyes. The pupils of these cartoonish eyes could move from side to side, giving the appearance of a shifting gaze. There were two conditions:

• In the “congruent” condition, the face’s gaze shifted towards a bull’s-eye that flickered in the corner of the picture.

• In the “incongruent” condition, the face’s gaze shifted away from the flickering bull’s-eye.

As the infants watched these pictures, their eye movements were captured on videotape. In this way, the researchers were able to measure the infants’ saccades—rapid, darting movements of the eye that are often involuntary and unconscious.

The results supported the idea that newborns pay attention to gaze. When the infants were cued by gaze, they were faster to make saccades to the bull’s-eye (Farroni et al 2004).

Newborns can match your facial expressions

Thanks to a landmark experiment by Andrew Meltzoff and Keith Moore (1983), we know that newborn babies can mimic facial expressions.

Meltzoff and Moore presented babies (ranging in age from 1 hour to 3 days old) with video playbacks of a stranger making faces. In one condition, the stranger stuck out his tongue. In another condition, he opened his mouth.

The results surprised many people who believed newborns were passive, socially unresponsive creatures: In the 20 seconds following each presentation, the babies were more likely to match the action they had just watched.

Does this mean newborns engage in deliberate imitation? Maybe not. Unlike the newborn's preference for friendly eye contact, newborn mimicry tends to disappear after a few weeks, and older babies may not show similar propensities until the beginning of their second year (Jones 2007). So perhaps newborn matching is less sophisticated than it looks -- not so much evidence of intentional imitation as evidence of a newborn's responsiveness to other people's facial expressions.

Newborn babies show empathy...and a sense of self ?

If you’ve visited the newborn ward, you’ve probably noticed that crying is contagious. If a newborn baby hears another baby cry, she joins in, too.

Is just a knee-jerk reaction to noise? Apparently not.

Studies show that newborns are discriminating. They can tell the difference between the sounds of

• their own cries

• the cries of other newborns, and

• the cries of older babies

And newborns are more likely to cry only if they hear the cries of other newborns.

The evidence comes from experiments in which researchers played back audio recordings to newborns. In one study, 1-day-old babies were more likely to cry when they heard an audio tape of another newborn in distress. But when they heard recordings of their own cries, or of the cries of an 11-month-old baby, the newborns didn’t respond (Martin and Clark 1987).

A similar study found that newborns showed greater and longer lasting signs of distress when they listened to the cries of others (Dondi et al 1999).

And in case you are wondering, this isn't some newborn reflex that disappears after the first few days of life. When researchers tested babies at months 1, 3, 6 and 9, they found that older babies, like newborns, responded with distress when they heard cries of pain (Geangu et al 2010).

As neuroscientists Jean Decety and Philip Jackson note, the crying studies suggest that newborns experience one of the basic ingredients of empathy—-the ability to share the emotions of another person. They also suggest that newborns have a sense of self (Decety and Jackson 2004).

The implications?

The studies cited here suggest that newborns are fundamentally social creatures. Babies seem designed to listen to speech, to seek out and differentiate faces, and to expect responsive social partners.

Perhaps the most important, practical lesson to be drawn is that we should be careful making assumptions about our babies—particularly assumptions that they are (more or less) mindless.

If we take the position that newborns need little more than feeding and diaper changes, we may miss important opportunities to connect with them. Why bother talking to your baby, gazing into her eyes, singing to her, smiling at her, soothing her, if you think these experiences are not meaningful to her?

But this research suggests that they are meaningful, and it makes me wonder what else we’ll discover about newborns in the years to come.

Meanwhile? I hope parents—even frazzled, exhausted, new parents—can take comfort in the knowledge that their loving care really does matter.

If we have to err, let’s err on the side of attributing too much “mindedness” to our babies. Studies suggest that this approach benefits kids.

And—-who knows?—-future research might prove that our overestimates were right on target.

More information about the abilities of newborns

To read more about the abilities of young babies, see this article about your newborn's senses of smell and taste. It discusses what babies knows about odors and flavors--and how they can quickly learn to identify your personal scent.



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Content last modified 8/2013

image of mother kissing newborn © Gearhart