In the second of this three-part series, guest contributor Dr. Amanda Gummer, a research psychologist who specializes in child development, provides informational on babies and the importance of facial recognition, as well as ideas to use this as a way to play and interact. To read the first post in this series, check out Playful Parents: How to Build a Relationship Between You and Your Baby. The following post is a collaboration between Dr. Gummer and Lamaze toys by TOMY.
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 a beaming mum, dad, grandparents, aunts and uncles in the first few days of their life, so this becomes comforting for her. 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 myth that this is due to gas, but actually it tends to be when they are sleepy). At around eight to nine months, she will start using her smile to communicate with you; she will have learned that when she smiles, 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 she can see your face and hers reflected, then pull some funny faces and see if she copies. Seeing herself in a mirror is hugely entertaining activity for your baby too, as this is yet another face she can enjoy looking at, that also makes eye contact with her.
Until about a year and a half, your child won’t really understand that the baby she is looking at is herself (this is known as self awareness), but playing with a safe mirror is a good way to help her discover this. You can also try dangling the legs of a soft toy on your baby’s body, so she see the toy touch the different parts of her body while feeling the texture on her skin; this helps her learn that the squidgy things she keeps holding onto or putting into her mouth are her hands and feet, and they belong to her.
Dr. Amanda Gummer, Ph.D., Founder and CEO of Fundamentally Children. As a research psychologist specialising in child 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.