Do you remember that feeling when your baby was first born and you could hardly keep your eyes of his beautiful flawless face? Radiant skin, succulent lips, the whole face just utter perfection.
The amazing thing is your baby would have felt the same about looking at you.
Nature has equipped babies with awesome tools to allow them to connect with their parents. Here we want to give you some insight into the importance of facial interaction and the role it plays in communicating and bonding.
When babies are born, they cannot talk. But does that mean they are unable to communicate? Hardly. Any new mum can tell you, it is impossible to ignore a crying baby. Pretty clear communication there.
But you don’t mean THAT kind of communication. Surely we want to know what a baby thinks. If he is happy or if he prefers one activity to another.
Your baby does communicate these things too, but the signs are more subtle than the dreaded cry. Crying is mostly used to express negative emotions, like hunger or discomfort and sometimes babies even cry for no known reason. Facial expressions on the other hand are expressions of a whole range of emotions: pleasure, satisfaction, surprise, fear, as well as early signs of tiredness or boredom.
Your baby’s facial muscles are pretty well developed at birth compared to the rest of the body and continue to progress faster than the rest.
One of the earliest “milestones” that parents often await in great anticipation is the first smile. With all his limitations your baby is trying hard to communicate what is in his head. And at first he only has his face to express himself.
How do you reply?
When your baby puts in so much effort and uses all his facial muscles to interact, he expects you to reply. Ideally, he wants you to reply in his language.
One great technique is to copy his expression back to your baby first and then respond. When you mirror back his expression, you are telling your baby you understood.
Research has shown that babies are born with very active mirror neurons in their brains. These specialised brain cells allow your baby to accurately “read your mind”. This is the foundation of empathy. And because your baby’s perception is not yet clouded by words, mirror neurons fire like crazy when you use your face to interact with your baby. Giving your baby plenty of “brain food” through interacting and playing will help his social and emotional skills.
When you interact with your baby, a great thing to try is to act as if your baby’s facial expression was a sentence and then respond in simple sentences, as if your baby had spoken. It doesn’t matter that your baby doesn’t understand your words yet. He will be delighted to see a response to his action, making him feel that his intentions are understood. Feeling understood will make him happy and will make him want to communicate more.
The back-and-forth of baby expressing and mum responding is the first step in non-verbal communicating and turn taking. When you talk, your baby will watch and wait for his turn to “reply”.
Babies that experience responsiveness by a mum copying their behaviour, learn that they can affect their environment. You can make it even more exciting by exaggerating when you copy your baby’s facial expression and adding bits to it. Babies with responsive parents learn about their emotional experiences and develop more rapidly.
Babies that don’t experience facial interaction, might become withdrawn and are more likely to cry. Babies need interaction, and small clues about their emotional state might otherwise be missed. If they cannot communicate their emotional state, they will get upset regardless whether they wanted to communicate something positive or negative.
Researchers have come up with a very convincing experiment to show that babies get distressed when facial interactions are withdrawn for no obvious reason. They call it the Still Face Experiment and YouTube has an excellent video by Dr Edward Tronick.
Practice makes perfect. And so after your baby has perfected their facial expressions their bodily development will have caught up and other gestures will join the facial expressions, like pointing or waving arms and legs in excitement.
Once your baby can control their breathing – at about 3 months - they are able to screech and gurgle. All these things are predecessors of language. Allow your baby to make the most of each developmental stage, before they move on to the next. Building a strong foundation of connectedness is the key to a happy childhood.
Some child psychologists believe that facial interaction is so important, that they suggest forward facing buggies should be avoided, because it deprives babies of facial contact and an opportunity to interact. Emotions and new experiences cannot be shared and the opportunity to learn will be lost.
Here is what Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at Dundee University has to say:
“Life in a baby buggy is more isolated than many adults realise – and may be more emotionally impoverished than is good for children’s development.
The stroller years are precisely those when human brains are developing more rapidly than they ever will again. Young brains are being shaped by every single tiny experience that a child has. “
It seems, allowing your baby to reach his full potential might just come down to small differences like that.
Small things matter.