Life Relationships Baby bonding: The best way to make friends with an infant
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Baby bonding: The best way to make friends with an infant

How babies enslave us: "Keeping doing what I'm doing and we can stay best friends for ever." Photo: Getty
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There’s new evidence to support the idea that young babies are shameless despots who not only bend adults to their will, but take over their personalities.

According to a study from Lund University in Sweden, infants aged six months not only recognise when adults are imitating them, they seem to coach them into fawning imitation.

They do this via a reward system where they look and smile longer at compliant baby-acting adults – and give the cold shoulder to people who don’t fall into line.

How did they find this out?

According to the study paper, infants aged six months were tested at home while seated on their mother’s lap, at a table.

The experimenter sat adjacently, at a 90-degree angle and approximately 50 centimetres from the infant.

All sessions were video-recorded by three cameras, which focused on the infant’s body, the infant’s face and the whole scene, respectively.

As compensation for their participation, at the end of testing, the family received a toy.

During the experiment, the babies were played with four different ways. The researcher either:

  • Imitated everything the babies did as a mirror
  • As a reverse mirror
  • Imitated only the bodily actions of the babies while keeping an immobile face
  • Or responded with a different action when the babies gestured in some way.

Lead researcher Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc said the latter response is called “contingent responding and is how most parents would respond to their baby – when the baby does or needs something, you react accordingly”.

In other words, it’s when you react to what the baby needs, rather than to what it does.

What Dr Sauciuc found was that the babies she interacted with “looked and smiled longer” and tried to approach her more often, during the close mirroring of their actions.

“Imitating young infants seems to be an effective way to catch their interest and bond with them,” said Dr Sauciuc, the main author of the study.

“The mothers were quite surprised to see their infants joyfully engaging in imitation games with a stranger, but also impressed by the infants’ behaviours.”

She said there was also “much testing behaviour” during imitation.

Are they testing you, or training you?

For example, if the baby hit the table and the researcher imitated that action, the baby would then hit the table several times, while carefully watching the researcher’s responses.

Even when the researcher did not show any emotions at all while imitating, “the babies still seemed to recognise that they were being imitated – and still responded with testing behaviour”.

“This was quite interesting. When someone actively tests the person who is imitating them, it is usually seen as an indication that the imitated individual is aware that there is a correspondence between their own behaviour and the behaviour of the other,” Dr Sauciuc said.

There’s plenty of research that has explored imitation and the learning  behaviour of babies. The idea being: They do what we do, and that’s how they come to understand the world.

This experiment appears to have turned round that dynamic, where the babies study those who imitate them as a way of learning about “cultural norms and interactional routines” and that “shared actions are accompanied by shared feelings and intentions”.

There was plenty of theory about this “but the empirical evidence to back up such theories is largely missing”.

“By showing that six-month-old infants recognise when they are being imitated, and that imitation has a positive effect on interaction, we begin to fill up this gap. We still have to find out when exactly imitation begins to have such effects, and what role imitation recognition actually plays for babies,” Dr Sauciuc concluded.

They prefer babbling to their own kind

As much as parents might enjoy the idea that they are central to their baby’s learning, it’s not always the case, especially when it comes to the early stages of learning language.

A 2018 study from McGill University found that “even at the pre-babbling stage, infants recognise vowel-like sounds,” but they tend to dwell more on these sounds when from the mouths of other babies.

In an experiment, five-month-old subjects spent 40 per cent longer listening to sounds from babies than adult vocalisations of the same vowels.

These findings were presented at the 175th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, held in May 2018 in Minneapolis.

They were supported by a 2015 study from the same researchers.