Babies are hardwired to recognize faces from birth; this is a survival instinct that helps them build a bond with their parent (or other main caregiver) as early as possible. Infants are attracted to anything that resembles a face, even something as abstract as two dots above a single central dot. Exaggerated features are more attractive to babies as they see it as a more powerful version of a face.
From as early as a week old, babies prefer to look at happy faces with open eyes (Farroni et al., 2007), and this may be due to smiling faces being the most familiar to them: Your baby will be surrounded by beaming family members and friends in the first few days of their life, so this becomes comforting to them. Because of this, toys with big smiley faces will be particularly interesting to your little one.
Your baby will be able to smile from about six weeks old, but this will be a spontaneous action (there is a myth that this is due to gas, but it actually tends to occur when they are sleepy). At around eight to nine months, they will start using their smile to communicate with you; they will have learned that when they smile, you react positively, and this is a powerful reinforcer.
A mirror on a toy is a handy and fun way to encourage your little one to explore all sorts of facial expressions. Try holding up the mirror so they can see your face and theirs reflected, then pull some funny faces and see if they copy. Seeing themselves in a mirror is a hugely entertaining activity for your baby too as this is yet another face they can enjoy observing, a face that also makes eye contact with them.
Until about a year and a half, your child won’t really understand that the baby they see is their own (this is known as self-awareness), but playing with a safe mirror is a good way to help them discover this. You can also try dangling the legs of a soft toy on your baby’s body, so they notice the toy touch the different parts of their body while feeling the texture on their skin; this helps them learn that the squishy things they hold onto or put into their mouth are their own hands and feet
Dr. Amanda Gummer, Ph.D., is the Founder and CEO of Fundamentally Children. As a research psychologist specializing in child development (including baby emotional development), Amanda’s work spans corporate, government, and charity sectors through which she promotes the value of play and positive parenting in child development to a variety of audiences. Her passion for play is illustrated in her book Play: Fun Ways to Help Your Child Thrive in the First 5 Years, published by Vermillion in 2015.