Why Face-to-Face Interaction Matters to Babies

Richard Rende, PhD  @richardrendephd
February 08, 2016

It’s not news to say that parents and babies need to bond. Part of this involves sharing face-to-face moments in the stream of everyday interaction. But beyond bonding – which in and of itself is an essential part of your baby’s early experiences – there are lots of cognitive benefits that come from spending good amounts of time in close proximity to your baby’s face. That’s why pediatricians emphasize the importance of face-to-face interaction.


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The fact is there is an extraordinary amount of information processing that happens in the first year of life that fuels both the emotional connection between parent and baby and cognitive growth. In fact, the two are intertwined, which again speaks to the primacy of having lots of opportunities for undistracted interaction. 

Consider some of these examples, as reviewed in “Raising Can-Do Kids.”

Babies are “wired” to selectively attend and respond to the human face. We can see that in the first few days of life, as newborns are capable of “tongue protrusion” or, put another way, will imitate someone if they stick their tongue out. Such imitation (which has been scrutinized methodologically) is quite an important signal, as it tells us how primed newborns are to attend to the human face, and capable of using that perception to engage in reciprocal interaction. 

This phenomenon orients us to the idea that babies have strategic ways of going about perceiving their world, which inevitably comes back to the human face. Sophisticated eye-tracking research has revealed babies study the face in very specific ways, which morph throughout the first year of life. Four-month-olds go straight for the eyes. By eight to 10 months, more attention is directed to the mouth, the source of all that interesting language that is getting absorbed. By one year of age, the focus is back on the eyes, as the source of sound (the mouth) is not so interesting anymore, reflecting the increasingly sophisticated ability to process language. And the eyes are the foundation of deep emotional connection. 

Such evidence about face perception should not be ignored. Babies are not doing this randomly. They have built in mechanisms that allow them to soak up language and information while at the same time fostering their social and emotional development. You cannot replace this type of stimulation, a point that brings us to the issue of screen time. Developmental and pediatric experts have been cautioning about screen time in the first years of life, primarily because it detracts from this essential face-to-face time that every baby craves. While some take a very anti-screen stance, it can be suggested that while moderate screen time may not be harmful, it can undermine opportunities for undistracted interaction between parent and baby. Of course, mobile technology has been a game changer, especially as both baby and parent may be focusing more and more on smartphones and the like. Again, this is not inherently detrimental, but it certainly is if it means that parent and baby are not getting good doses of face-to-face time. There’s just no substitute for it. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that face-to-face interaction is an opportunity for lots of positive emotion, including laughter. Think about how babies like to play peek-a-boo. It both stimulates their higher-order thinking and understanding about the world, and reinforces social bonding. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Babies are indeed sponges that want to soak up everything you offer them, and they get great pleasure from looking at you, studying your expressions, processing your words and emotional tones. It’s how they learn, and how they form their attachments. And the same goes for when they are distressed and need soothing from you.

Indeed, it’s appropriate to conclude by referencing a recent study suggesting that healthy, well-adjusted adults are more likely to have experienced an “evolved developmental niche” characterized by soothing experiences, sensitivity to social signals like crying, lots of physical interaction combined with affection, and playful exchanges. Inevitably, all of these activities involve healthy doses of face-to-face interaction. 

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