The social abilities of newborns:
Why babies are born to learn from our sensitive, loving care
© 2009 - 2016 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
newborns spend most of their time sleeping
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 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 guides infant development, helping babies learn crucial lessons about people, communication, and the world at large.
Here are some examples of the social feats that babies can perform within the first days of life.
Newborns prefer “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 babies learn to speak.
Interestingly, babies seem to prefer the sound of 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. They showed a preference for 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).
Moreover, maternal sounds can have a
marked, soothing, physiological effect. In a study of infants born preterm, infants experience slower heart
rates when they heard their mothers' voices (Rand and Lahav 2014).
Newborns recognize their native language
Every language has its own characteristic rhythms, and babies 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
Newborns can identify their parents' faces
A neonate 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). Other studies have
replicated these results, and offer insight into the clues that babies
use to tell people apart: They are probably noticing differences in face
shape, hairstyle, and color (Pascalis et al 1994).
Newborns prefer to look at people who make direct eye contact and talk to them
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
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, newborn babies 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). More recent experiments suggest that the flipped case is also
true. Babies looked longer at photographs of strangers displaying direct
gaze, but only when those strangers had previously looked at and talked
to them (Guellai et al 2015).
So from the very beginning,
infants are attuned to multiple signals of social interaction. They pay
more attention to people who make eye contact and who engage them in
Young babies become distressed when caregivers look emotionally unresponsive
It's one thing to prefer to eye contact and talk. Do new babies
also prefer animation -- faces that are expressive and responsive? You
might assume such preferences would take time to develop, but research
suggests they emerge very early. The method for testing is called the
"still face paradigm," and it works like this: An adult -- typically the
caregiver -- is asked to interact in a normal way with the baby. Then
the adult suddenly adopts a neutral facial expression. The baby's
reactions are recorded and analyzed.
Still face experiments
conducted in Switzerland have shown babies as young as 6 weeks "reliably
decreased their visual attention and positive affect" [emotion] when
their adult partners faces go blank (Bertin and Striano 2006). A study
of 2-month-old babies in Taiwan obtained similar results (Hsu and Jeng
2008). In Scotland, Emese Nagy (2008) detected signs of distress in
babies less than 4 days old.
Newborn babies pay more attention to things that you are looking at
If I follow your gaze, I can figure out all sorts of things: What you
are looking at, what your intentions are, and what you might do next. Thus, gaze-following is a important tool for learning. It draws a baby's attention to important things in the environment, and helps babies develop an understanding of other people's minds.
Studies show that gaze-following in older babies (6-12 months) predicts the development of language skills and social competence (Tenebaum et al 2014; Young et al 2009; Carpenter et al 1998). And recent research suggests that even newborns practice a
rudimentary form of it.
In one experiment, Teresa Farroni and colleagues showed new
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.
Congruent: The face’s gaze shifted towards a bull’s-eye that flickered in the corner of the picture.
Incongruent: 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 are responsive to our facial expressions and gestures
In 1983, Andrew Meltzoff and Keith Moore performed a landmark experiment. They 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, babies were more likely to match the action they
had just watched (1983). Subsequent studies have replicated the effect, even in nonhuman primates, like this newborn macaque (Gross 2006).
So it appears to be a response with deep evolutionary roots, though human
babies respond a bit differently. Unlike the monkey, our babies are more likely
to mirror a "tongue out" expression when they are lying down or
sitting in an infant seat (Nagy et al 2013).
Is this imitation? Maybe not. When Janine Oostenbroek and colleagues
revisited the phenomenon, they wanted to know if newborns are sticking their
tongues out to match us, or doing it as a natural response to face-to-face
communication. Maybe babies are just as likely to do it when we smile or
gesture with our hands.
The researchers ran their own matching experiments, adding new controls, and
found they were right to be suspicious: Newborns stuck their tongues out in
response to several different displays, including happy faces and finger
pointing gestures, and the babies didn't appear to imitate anything
(Oosterbroek et al 2016).
Still, it's premature to conclude that newborns can't mimic us at all. In a
series of experiments conducted by Emese Nagy and her colleagues (2014),
2-day-old infants were more likely to raise their index fingers after seeing
their mothers do the same. They also mirrored gestures involving the movement
of 2 fingers (making the "peace sign"). Moreover, the babies showed
rapid learning, their gestures becoming more accurate with practice.
And all of these studies confirm a crucial developmental fact: Newborns are
attentive and responsive to face-to-face communication, and ready to learn. Oosterbroek's coauthor, Virginia Slaughter, thinks
that we may give our babies a boost when we imitate them. She notes that in
previous research, her team has found that "parents imitate their babies
once every two minutes on average; this is a powerful means by which infants
can learn to link their gestures with those of another person" (Caputo
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
A similar study found that new babies 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 young babies 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
What are the implications?
In times past, some people believed that newborns were effectively
mindless: tiny survival machines that depended on us for food and
But the studies cited here confirm that newborn babies are fundamentally
creatures. They seem designed to listen to speech, to seek out and
differentiate faces, and to expect responsive social partners.
perhaps the most important, practical lesson is to be on our guard
against assumptions about the limitations of babies. If we take the
position that newborns need little more than
feeding and diaper changes, we may miss important opportunities to
connect with them.
And while there's still a lot we don't
understand about babies, the evidence supports a pro-mentalistic stance.
Studies suggest that babies develop stronger attachment relationships when we treat them like creatures with independent minds. Science has also demonstrated the protective effects of positive, sensitive social interactions on a baby's developing stress response system.
So if we have to err, let's err on the side of attributing too much
"mind" to our babies. We have little to lose, and who knows? Future
studies might reveal that our generous attributions were right on
More information about the abilities of newborns
To read more about the abilities of newborn babies, take a look at this page about your baby's senses of smell and taste.
In addition, check out this collection of articles and blog posts that I've written about baby development.
For information about reducing stress in babies, see these evidence-based tips.
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Content last modified 5/2016.
image of mother kissing newborn ©iStockphoto.com/Shawn Gearhart
image of newborn with mother and medical staff by US Navy
image of macaque © 2006 Public Library of Science.
image of infant with father by David Cox / US Navy