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Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Eye Contact and Other Baby Milestones That Cause Worry

 When I started this blog ten years ago I was most interested in issues for infants and toddlers, and that remains my “first love”. In recent years I have gotten into the morass of “parental alienation” concerns and I have been spending a lot of time writing about that topic for publication.

However, I know there is still a need for discussion of baby matters, because I frequently get personal emails from young parents who are worried about whether their babies are developing normally. Many of them are terrified that some developmental glitch (as they see it) means autism. Others are just generally frantically worried about everything.

If people are worrying a great deal because of their own anxiety and depression following the birth of a baby, giving them information can only briefly reduce their anxiety. In those cases, they (and I mean, You, if you are like this) need to find someone to talk to and get some support and help as they work through this stage of life. Nowadays, obstetricians are supposed to screen patients for perinatal mood disorders (AKA postpartum depression) and to provide them with referrals for help. Not all do this—but if they do not, nevertheless they are the first line of help for patients who can bring themselves to ask for it.

For other people—ones who are only worried because of something they saw or read—just getting some better information can be helpful. Here are some thoughts about infant development that might save some people some distress:

VARIABILITY: Babies do not read the child development books or follow those milestones exactly! Here’s the deal. The age given as appropriate to a “milestone” like sitting unsupported is an average drawn from hundreds of babies. It’s a piece of arithmetic that produced that average from a long list of numbers. It might well be that no baby whose age at sitting was listed actually sat alone at the age that is calculated to be the average. Development is variable, with about half of babies doing something later than the average and the other half doing it earlier. How much later or earlier? That’s the question, and you will not be able to figure this out easily from most books you can get. There is a normal range of ages at sitting alone (or whatever) and all you need to know is that your baby is within that. There are no prizes given for earliest independent sitting or anything else. Yes, of course it is troubling and perhaps a problem if a skill is achieved very late, but if you are getting regular well-baby care that will be picked up.

Please note also that a particular baby can be early on one achievement and late on another. Some people have thought that those who walk early talk later and vice versa, but I don’t know if that’s really true. Certainly they seem to put one development on hold while they work on another one for a while.

SUPINE versus PRONE: When my children were babies, I and all the other parents put them down to sleep on their tummies (prone position). We were told this would prevent them from choking if they spat up.  In the late 1990s, some not very good research was interpreted to mean that all babies should be put down on their backs (supine position) to prevent SIDS. The baby’s sleeping position helps to determine the order in which muscles get stronger and come under control. Lying prone makes it easier to develop head control and strengthen arms and shoulders. Lying supine slows those achievements.

The list of milestones you see was developed when babies usually lay prone. The milestones that are listed as associated with particular ages are those that occur for babies who spend most of their time in prone. The list of ages and milestones is not the same for babies who spend their time supine. You probably put your baby in supine, as you have been told to do, and you probably don’t do much tummy time because the baby fusses when you do and you are afraid he or she will die right before your eyes from SIDS!

We do not at this time have a good list of ages and milestones for supine-lying babies. All I can tell you is, don’t panic when you see your baby is not doing what the list derived from prone babies says should be happening.

EYE CONTACT: I am sure you don’t gaze into other peoples eyes every chance you get. You look at another person, look away, even use your eyes to point out something you want the other person to look at. Babies don’t gaze into eyes much, either, and they do it when they feel like it. Nursing babies under 6 months usually shut their eyes and get on with the job. Older nursing babies often put their hands to the mother’s face, poke a finger up her nose, and generally look her over. Those photographs you see in advertisements, where a beautiful nursing mother is gazing into her baby’s eyes in a charming room with nice curtains and all--  I just wonder how many shots it took the photographer to get that picture!

Eye contact with very young babies (under perhaps three months) is complicated by a lot of things. They are often not fully awake unless they are upright. They cannot see things that are very close to their faces. They need bright light to see well, and if your face is in shadow as you bend over them, they don’t really see you. What’s more, just like you, they don’t do everything they can do, every time they get a chance to do it.

By the way, a young blind baby may appear to be making eye contract just in response to hearing a voice, so you really can’t always tell hat’s happening.

Does your baby of more than three months seem to be interested in people or pets and look at them more than at inanimate objects? That’s what you really want to know.


I am hoping these thoughts may help a little—but then parenthood is really about worrying—let’s just try not to let it get too uncomfortable, because that causes trouble for parents and babies alike.