[By: Sayaka Kidby]
If you have spent time with a young baby, you probably know how babies are good at “staring”. When your baby looks into your eyes, you would probably look straight back into your baby’s eyes, smiling – making direct eye contact with them. Have you ever wondered – why they stare at you so much, and what happens in your baby’s brain when you look into your baby’s eyes?
Why do they look into your eyes?
Eyes are “eye-catching” even for newborns. At an average age of 36 hours, newborns were shown to look at a face with open eyes longer than a face with closed eyes [i]. Even more striking for babies is eyes which are directed straight to them. From birth, your baby will look at you more often and longer if you look directly into their eyes[ii]. This may explain why babies are so good at looking into people’s eyes – they naturally get “attracted” to eyes, especially when they are directed to them.
What happens in your baby’s brain when you look into your baby’s eyes?
- Babies remember your face better
There is more than attraction in eyes – eyes directed to them are also known to enhance a baby’s attention and memory. For instance, babies better remember the faces of people whose eyes are directed to them, and similar effects have been reported in babies as young as 1-day old [iii] [iv]. This effect of eyes on babies’ attention and memory might be help babies learn better from others as well as communicate with other people.
- Babies learn new things better
Eye contact has also been shown to help babies learn new things. From very early stages of life, babies are shown able to follow other people’s eye movements, and at around 9 or 10 months of age they learn to pay close attention to an object that another person is looking at. Further, if you pay attention to both your baby and a certain object (for example, a new toy), it has been shown that your baby’s brain input more information about this object[v] [vi]. This suggests that your eyes will help your baby to learn better when they encounter new objects and environments. This also means that it is your direct eye contact (that is, your willingness to communicate with your baby reflected in your eyes), not your mere presence, that makes a difference in your baby’s learning.
- Your brain and your baby’s brain get more connected
Moreover, it was found that your brain is actually “synchronised” with your baby’ s when you make direct eye contact with each other [vii] . That is, when you look into each other’s eyes, your brain and you baby’s brain activity show similar patterns and rhythms (see pictures and graphs below). Does this finding resonate with you? Do you feel you are better connected when you and your baby look into each other’s eyes? This might be how your baby feels about you when you look into their eyes.
Brain activities monitored by a technology called EEG [electroencephalogram] looks like a wave, and when infants and mothers are making direct eye contact, their brains show stronger synchronisation (Images retrieved from https://www.baby-linc.psychol.cam.ac.uk/Research on 23 May 2019) )
So, look at your little one into their eyes with your warm smile. It will not only make them smile but also maybe help them learn better and get more connected to you.
If you have any questions, please email Sayaka Kidby on s.kidby[at]lancaster.ac.uk (please use @ for [at]).
She is currently running a study investigating what happens in an 8-month-old baby’s brain when they try to learn from their parent when they see something unexpected. If you have a baby between 7.5 and 8.5-month old and are interested in coming over to take part in her study in Lancaster, England, please email her or register at Lancaster BabyLab (http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/babylab/, and go to “Get Involved”). The Lancaster Babylab also has a facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/LancasterBabylab/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel), where you can find the latest information about studies taking place there, and events for parents including a monthly coffee morning (every first Saturday from 10am).
[i] Batki, A., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Connellan, J., & Ahluwalia, J. (2000). Is there an innate gaze module? Evidence from human neonates. Infant Behavior and Development. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0163-6383(01)00037-6
[ii] Farroni, T., Csibra, G., Simion, F., & Johnson, M. H. (2002). Eye contact detection in humans from birth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.152159999
[iii] Hood, B. M., Macrae, C. N., Cole-Davies, V., & Dias, M. (2003). Eye remember you: The effects of gaze direction on face recognition in children and adults. Developmental Science. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-7687.00256
[iv] Rigato, S., Menon, E., Johnson, M. H., Faraguna, D., & Farroni, T. (2011). Direct gaze may modulate face recognition in newborns. Infant and Child Development. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.684
[v] Parise, E., Reid, V. M., Stets, M., & Striano, T. (2008). Direct eye contact infuences the neural processing of objects in 5-month-old infants. Social Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470910701865458
[vi] Striano, T., Reid, V. M., & Hoehl, S. (2006). Neural mechanisms of joint attention in infancy. European Journal of Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-9568.2006.04822.x
[vii] Leong, V., Byrne, E., Clackson, K., Georgieva, S., Lam, S., & Wass, S. (2017). Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1702493114