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Smiling, Eye Contact and Early Development

The importance of encouraging parent eye contact & smiling

Making eye contact is the most powerful mode of establishing a communicative link between humans. Research results show that, from birth, human infants prefer to look at faces that engage them in mutual gaze (they like to be looked at!). From an early age, healthy babies show enhanced neural processing of direct gaze (more brain activity = more brain gr0wth). The sensitivity to mutual gaze demonstrated at 2-5 days of life shows that it is the major foundation for the later development of social skills.

Research has shown that when parents/adults smile at a baby/young child, they are teaching him/her how to interact, take turns socially, and early social rules. “It’s by smiling at the same time as their mothers, the baby responding to the mother and the mother responding to the baby, that babies develop a sense of shared social emotion.”

baby smiles

PREDICTION: Infant smiles tell us about how infants will develop. Four-month-olds who smile more in response to a mobile, show a more exuberant temperamental style at four years when they are more likely to talk and engage with peers. Infant smiling in response to a brief period of parental non-responsivity (when the parent stops normal play to pose a “still-face”) may indicate emotional resilience. In comparison with infants who did not smile, six-month-old infants who smile during the still-face are more likely to be securely attached at twelve months. Their parents also perceive them as having fewer behaviors such as being loud and rough than infants who did not smile during the parental still-face. Infants who smile when the going gets rough appear to develop socially appropriate relationships. Refer to the following for more detailed information on Smiling and Infant Development.

Perspectives from the home…. I provide weekly services to a child who will turn three at the end of October. His mother is very young, but very involved. She really ‘bought’ my suggestion of the use of eye contact and smiling at him from our earliest sessions. He had at least a 40dB hearing loss at birth, as he was able to be identified through our newborn hearing screening program at the birth hospital. He now has a 65dB loss bilaterally. His amazing articulation (clarity of speech) and use of language may keep him from eligibility for further services…we’ll see!

Yesterday, I saw a 2 year old. His mother read a short story with three pictures depicting the action in the story. When he retold the story, he missed some critical elements not shown in the pictures. While he could point to the correct picture while Mom was reading the story, he missed that the purpose of the story was to discover how this baby bear finally got warm. The child retold the story saying that “the baby bear wanted to go in a tree, sit on a rock, and went to his mother who hugged him.’” I then reread the story to the child and signed as I read. I then asked the child to retell the story again. This time he got several additional elements and was particularly interested in the baby bear wanting to get warm. The signing seemed to be a significant support in understanding and getting more out of this short story. For him signing seemed to be an important route to learning the details of communication.

I have one other family whose 3 year old daughter has excellent articulation with fair use of language. She was also identified at birth with a hearing loss and got her cochlear implants at 8 months. Her parents have been very mindful of eye contact and smiling. It has been wonderful to watch these children do so well.

Janet Trychin, early intervention provider in Pennsylvania (janettrychin@roadrunner.com for comments)