Sunday, May 1, 2016
Baby Looks at Toys More Than At You? Probably Not a Problem
If you’re a parent of a young child and feel scared about autism, you probably are aware of “red flags” that might warn you of an infant’s future autism diagnosis. The most popular of these has to do with gaze at faces and especially mutual gaze or “eye contact”. Young parents watch to see whether their baby looks toward their faces and gives prolonged examination to their eyes. Not only the many “red flag” lists, but advertisements (usually showing mothers and babies) suggest that long periods of shared gaze are normally frequent events in the lives of parents and infants. Some parents get the idea that these periods of gazing are not only frequent but should be present practically from birth. Others become more concerned about the role of mutual gaze in joint attention after about 9 months and expect those shared gazes to last a long time.
‘Tain’t so, however, as I’ve commented before on this blog. What is “so”, then? To know this, we have to turn to some very careful, detailed work of microanalysis on video records of infant-adult activity.
In a recent article (De Barbaro, Johnson, Forster,and Deak, . Sensorimotor decoupling contributes to triadic attention: A longitudinal investigation of mother-infant-object interactions. Child Development, 87, 494-512), the researchers looked at babies as they developed from four months of age to 12 months. They made videos of each baby playing with his or her mother when objects were available to handle or look at. Both partners’ hand movements and gazes were recorded as they sat with interesting toys between them. Both mothers and babies could and did pick up toys and look at them, or look at them without picking them up, or pick them up and not look at them. Each could also watch what the other was doing. The very large number of recorded events were assessed by trained observers with respect to what the individual was touching and where he or she was looking. (The frame-by-frame analysis contained 610,000 behavioral events, which should show readers what it actually takes to understand developmental changes.)
As the babies got older, they spent more time touching the toys, and less time looking at them, but about the same (relatively low) amount of time both looking and touching. The mothers changed what they did as the babies got older, too-- as the babies touched more, the mothers touched less. With increasing age, the babies also increasingly “decoupled” their actions-- that is, they became more likely to look at something without touching it, or to touch it without looking at it. In addition, they became less locked into having their two hands do the same thing, and increased their tendency to do one thing with the right hand and another with the left (an important ability that lets them hold an object in one hand and poke it with the other, or, later on, tie their shoelaces).
For parents who are concerned that their four-month-olds do not make enough eye contact, I want to point to the findings of De Barbaro and her colleagues that four-month-olds actually showed more “joint attention” by looking at objects the mothers were attending to than they did when they were older. The four-month-olds spent more than 40% of their session time touching objects, and 75% looking at them, even though they were face-to-face with their mothers and could easily have spent more time looking at faces. These authors cited an earlier study as showing that “3-to-5-mont-old infants were approximately 5 times more likely to look at objects manipulated by their parents than at their parents’ faces”. In addition, when the babies began to spend less time looking at the toys, they did not look more at the mothers’ faces; “rather, infants increasingly looked at other features of their environment (e.g., tray, floor, and furniture)”.
DeBarbaro and her colleagues also noted that “decoupling”—changing the tendency to link looking and touching, or to link left hand and right hand movements—“allows infants to watch their mothers’ object activity while maintaining contact with their own objects. This sets the stage for activities like taking turns using toys or attempting to imitate the mother’s actions.”
I don’t at all mean to ridicule young parents’ concerns about autism or about problems of attachment. I just want to point out that babies in their first year have a lot of developmental tasks to do in addition to social interactions and the foundations of attitudes toward the self and others. Sighted human beings use gaze in communication in very significant ways, but they use gaze for a great many other things they learn and do. As a highly visual species, we take in most of our information with our eyes. Looking at just one thing we do with our eyes as infants is a mistake, because we need to be considering all the many ways a child interacts with the world.
I also want to point out that the article by De Barbaro and her colleagues is an excellent example of what it takes to understand development at a detailed level. Rather than just doing things more and more or better and better over the first year, babies do some things more and some things less over time. As is the case for crawling and walking, they may abandon an action they do very well and take up one that is quite challenging at the time. The whole picture of development can’t be reduced to “red flags.”