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Here’s why you should smile at your baby – a lot

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One of the first things a baby will share with its parent is a smile. For most adults, smiling with babies may simply be fun and endearing. However, according to psychologists, it’s much more than that. The relationship between the parent and child is very important for the baby’s development. In most cases, smiling is a huge part of how these relationships are formed, as illustrated in the shocking “Still face Experiment” that you will read about below.

Why is Smiling So Important?

Simply put, smiles are important because they aid parent-child relationships and overall development. Over the past decades, there have been theories about the relationship between smiling and the brain development of babies. However, most of this has been speculative up until very recently. Current studies and experiments have been able to show that there is indeed a cause-effect relationship between smiling and healthy mental development. In this article, we are going to discuss in detail the results of three widely-cited studies on why it’s important for babies to smile and be smiled to.

Read our article about the importance of having eyecontact with your baby.

The Still Face Experiment

The Still Face Experiment is a 1975 study carried out by Edward Tronick and some of his University of Massachusetts colleagues. The aim of the study was to demonstrate that babies can pick up on social cues. The study showed how the actions, reactions, and inaction of parents could affect the attention and countenance of babies.

In this study, Tronick states that babies can smile and recognize smiles at as early as six weeks old. He also states that they can recognize the relationship between expressions and emotions, as well as control their response to it.

The Still Face Experiment begins with a parent trying to gain the attention of their baby. This parent would talk, laugh, and point, all while closely watching the baby. When the baby is fully engaged in the parent’s actions, the parent suddenly turns away from the child. After a short moment, they turn back to look at their baby with a blank stare. The baby’s response to this action is then observed from here out. In most cases, the babies will dramatically try to regain the attention of their parent. In some other cases, the baby may even collapse uncontrollably.

The results of The Still Face Experiment simply show that babies are greatly affected by how older people (especially their parents) interact with them. It has been replicated so many times with similar results such that it has become a huge part of the study of child psychology. The experiment has proven how positive emotions and expressions could affect how babies develop social skills and vice versa.

 

Mother-Infant Interaction Study

This study takes a more analytical approach to understanding the importance of mother-infant interactions. The study was conducted with thirteen mother-infant pairs. Each week, the researchers observed face-to-face interactions between one of the mothers and their child. For each pair of mother and child, the researchers aimed to observe and compute the probability of the following scenarios:

  • Maximize the time of simultaneous mother-infant smiling
  • … the times where the mother would be smiling, but not the infant.
  • … and the times where the mother would not be smiling, but the infant would be
  • … the times of the mother and infant not smiling at the same time.

In order to compute these probabilities, the researchers followed three simple steps:

  1. Create and fit a predictive model of the period during which the mother is smiling.
  2. Hypothesize a likely goal for the infant.
  3. Compute the maximum time it takes the infant to recognize and react to its mother’s expression.
  4. Determine how well No. 3 fits the empirically observed smiling time.

The results of the study showed that the probability of the first scenario (simultaneous mother-infant smiling) was much higher than the other scenarios. In fact, ten out of the thirteen pairs had scenario one as the most probable. More details of this study can be seen here.

Baby’s Smile is a Natural High

In 2008, Dr. Lane Strathearn – a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine – conducted this study. The aim of the study was to figure out this special relationship that everyone says mothers have with their children. In order to do this, Strathearn and his colleagues put together a group of first-time mothers. This group consisted of mothers with infants ranging from five to ten months old.

The mothers were placed in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. From there, they watched images of their babies and other babies. The MRI machine would then show the slevel of brain activity each image evoked. After assessing all the images produced by the MRI, it was confirmed that the mothers’ brains showed the highest level of activity when they were shown pictures of their own babies smiling. The MRI also showed that the areas of the brain that were most stimulated were the striatum, the subtantia nigra region, as well as the frontal lobe. These are also the parts of the brain that are stimulated during recreational drug use. This study led most scientists to conclude that seeing your baby’s smile is like a natural high.

Upon careful assessment of the three studies discussed in this post, it is safe to conclude that smiling with your babies is important. Not only would this help to develop their social skills, but it is also beneficial to the parent in the long run. So, the next time that baby shoots you a smile, make sure to return the favor.

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