Category: Babies

Nine-month-olds prefer looking at unattractive (read: normal) male bodies

When faces were hidden or schematic, 9-month-olds preferred looking at the “unattractive” male bodies

Out-of-shape new dads around the world take heart – your little munchkin thinks your fuller figure is nicer to look at than the ripped, six-pack-boasting torsos so often seen in magazines and after-shave adverts.

Michelle Delaney at the University of Sheffield and her colleagues presented dozens of babies with pictures of pairs of Caucasian male bodies wearing only underwear: one was always “unattractive” with a fuller waist and smaller chest; the other was always more muscular, with a V-shaped torso, a larger chest and narrower waist. “The men with attractive bodies were models, and the men with unattractive bodies were friends of the experimenters,” the researchers explained. It wasn’t stated whether these volunteers remained friends with the researchers after reading the descriptions used in the study.

Videos were taken of the babies’ eye gaze, and after they’d spent a total of ten seconds looking at one pair of pictures, a new pair was shown. The key test was whether the babies would choose to spend more time looking at the V-shaped “mesomorphic” male bodies (rated earlier as more attractive by hundreds of adult male and female participants) or at the less attractive, normal-shaped male bodies.

Nine-month-olds showed a clear preference for looking at the unattractive, normal male bodies, but only in versions of the experiment where the men’s faces were obscured. If the faces were shown, no body preference was found. This might simply be because of babies’ well-known attraction to faces, which may have distracted them from the bodies.

Babies aged 3.5 months and 6 months showed no preference for one male body type or the other. A habituation test (based around the idea of babies finding a new type of image interesting to look at) showed that 3.5-month-olds couldn’t tell the difference between the two body types. Six-month-olds could, but they didn’t show a preference.

Why should nine-month-olds prefer looking at cuddlier-shaped men? Delaney and her colleagues think the preference probably arises from what babies are used to encountering in their daily lives – after all, they said, a recent NHS survey in England found that “66 per cent of men were overweight or obese”. A related explanation is that the babies prefer female-looking bodies (perhaps because they see their mother more often), and male bodies with more fat have a closer resemblance to a female body.

The emergence of the babies’ preference for a particular male body type between 6 and 9 months complements past research suggesting that it is around the age of 9 months that babies typically begin to show a sophisticated recognition of the human form – for example, they are sensitive to the normal proportions of the arms, legs and neck.

 “The current study suggests that during infancy, preferences for particular human body shapes reflect level of exposure and resultant familiarity rather than culturally defined stereotypes of attractiveness,” the researchers said. “Precisely when and how children develop preferences for adult-defined attractive bodies remains a question for future research.” They added that it would be interesting to repeat the research to see if nine-month-olds’ preferences vary with the differing average body sizes across cultures – for example in Japan versus Samoa.


Heron-Delaney, M., Quinn, P., Lee, K., Slater, A., & Pascalis, O. (2013). Nine-month-old infants prefer unattractive bodies over attractive bodies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115 (1), 30-41 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2012.12.008

Image reproduced with the permission of the first author.

–Further reading–
Lads’ mags and feelings of physical inadequacy – single men most at risk

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

At what age do babies enter the uncanny valley?

In the 1970s, the roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed a curious phenomenon. As robots became more human-like, their appeal increased but only up to a point. When their human likeness became too realistic (but still not perfect), their appeal plunged. Mori nicknamed this abrupt aversion “the uncanny valley“, in reference to the shape of the graph mapping human-likeness and appeal. Are we born with this aversion to the almost-real or does it emerge later?

To find out, David Lewkowicz and Asif Ghazanfar presented nearly a hundred infants (aged between 6 to 12 months) with pairs of faces, to see which they would look at for longer. In the first study, the babies were shown a human face alongside a cartoon face (an “avatar”) with enlarged goggle-eyes. The researchers said adults would find the avatar uncanny and would avoid looking at it. The key finding here was that six-month-olds spent more time looking at the uncanny avatar, whereas the twelve-month-olds, like adults, spent more time looking at the human face. Based on this dramatic contrast in preference, Lewkowicz and Ghazanfar said the uncanny valley effect emerges gradually between six and twelve months of age.

What was it about the faces that provoked this change in preference in the older babies? In two further studies, the researchers presented the babies with either a goggle-eyed uncanny avatar alongside a more realistic avatar face with normal-sized eyes, or with a human face alongside the realistic avatar. In the first case, all the babies, from 6 to 12 months, spent more time looking at the realistic avatar. In the second case, the babies of all ages spent equal amounts of time looking at the two faces.

These results suggest that none of the babies could distinguish between the realistic avatar and a real human face, and that the older babies in the first study, and all the babies in the second study, must therefore have been using the enlarged eyes to distinguish the goggle-eyed avatar from a human face or realistic avatar face, respectively.

Lewkowicz and Ghazanfar said that the aversion to the goggle-eyed uncanny avatar likely emerged in the older babies as a consequence of their growing expertise with processing human faces, and their association of human faces with positive consequences. However, the older babies’ expertise was obviously far from complete because they were unable to tell a realistic avatar from a human face. By 12 months, they can spot uncanny features, it seems, but not a synthetic face. “This limitation, particularly at the end of the first year of life, is interesting,” the researchers said, “because infants of this age have already become sufficiently specialised for human faces that they no longer discriminate the faces of other species and of other races [a process known as perceptual narrowing]”.

This study builds on recent research showing evidence of the uncanny valley effect in monkeys. From an evolutionary perspective, the researchers said their results were consistent with the idea that the uncanny valley effect emerges as a result of early developmental experience and was “a useful behavioural adaptation because it enables observers to quickly detect anomalies (e.g. disease) and/or aesthetic value (i.e. beauty) of a face.”

Critics of this research may feel that it is rather a leap to assume that the uncanny feeling experienced by adults is felt by babies in any way, just because they look at a face more or less. Moreover, the classic uncanny valley effect is about almost-real robots and faces. This study arguably complicates the issue somewhat by introducing specific abnormal features onto synthetic faces, therefore making them look unreal. Whilst it’s been shown that abnormal features, such as enlarged eyes, are perceived as uncanny by adults, this could be a different effect from the discomfort caused by not-quite-perfect hyper-realistic entities.


Lewkowicz, D., and Ghazanfar, A. (2012). The development of the uncanny valley in infants Developmental Psychobiology, 54 (2), 124-132 DOI: 10.1002/dev.20583

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

When depressed mothers give birth to thriving babies

Shelves of evidence show the long-term, adverse consequences for an embryo of having a mother who is stressed or malnourished during pregnancy. For instance, there’s medical data showing that underweight newborn babies are more at risk of heart diseases and other illnesses in adulthood.

According to the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis, this is because the child is born with a body that’s primed for malnutrition. When the baby instead encounters plentiful resources, its metabolism suffers as a result, leading to a long-term increased risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

But what if the prenatal environment were a reliable predictor of the world that’s to come? A surprising new study shows that adverse prenatal circumstances, in the form of having a depressed mother, are actually beneficial if that same context endures after birth. The finding is consistent with the “predictive-adaptive response model”, which says that adversity in-utero can have adaptive advantages if adversity is also encountered after birth.

Curt Sandman and his team measured the depression levels of 221 healthy women during their pregnancy and for twelve months after their children were born. The babies were subsequently categorised into four groups. There were two “concordant” groups, for whom the environment was the same prenatally and post-natally, as in their mother was either depression-free in both phases or she had depression in both phases. And there were two “discrepant” groups, for whom the prenatal and postnatal environments were different, as in their mother had depression in one phase but not the other.

Here’s the take-home finding: babies in the concordant groups exhibited superior scores on mental development at 3 and 6 months of age, and superior psychomotor development at 6 months, compared with the discrepant babies. Crucially, this was the case for both concordant groups. In other words, for babies whose mothers were depressed postnatally, it was those whose mothers were also depressed during pregnancy who fared better. This counterintuitive finding appears to contradict the received wisdom that adversity during pregnancy is only ever associated with adverse outcomes.

Zeroing in on the timings, it was specifically the consistency or not between a mother’s depression state at 25 weeks’ gestation and her depression state postnatally that had associations with the babies’ developmental outcomes. This makes sense because past research has found mothers’ depression at 25 weeks’ gestation (as opposed to at other times) to be most strongly related with their emotional state postnatally. The researchers said it’s as if the unborn child is “most sensitive to maternal signals of adversity when those signals are the most predictive of future outcomes.”

  ResearchBlogging.orgSandman, C., Davis, E., and Glynn, L. (2012). Prescient Human Fetuses Thrive. Psychological Science, 23 (1), 93-100 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611422073

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Babies can tell whether you made a mistake or not from the tone of your voice

For decades, psychologists have been trying to find out when and how children develop the ability to step outside of themselves and understand other people’s minds. Piaget, the great Swiss developmental psychologist, had children study a model of the mountains around Geneva and describe what the scene would look like from another perspective. His results led him to conclude that children younger than about seven are stuck with an ego-centric perspective. Since then, with ever more ingenious techniques, psychologists have demonstrated that even infants as young as one year old have a rudimentary sense that other people have a mind, perspective and intentions of their own. Betty Repacholi and Alison Gopnik, for example, observed how 18-month-olds would choose to feed an adult disgusting broccoli, rather than yummy crackers, if they’d seen the adult enjoying the dreaded vegetable earlier.

Now Elena Sakkalou and Merideth Gattis have performed a study looking specifically at the role of prosody in the ability of infants to infer whether an adult intended to perform an action or made a mistake. Prosody refers to the sing-song, rise and fall of speech – its tempo and fluctuating pitch. It’s the quality of speech we can hear through a wall or ceiling. We might not be able to distinguish any of our next-door neighbour’s actual words, but we can still get a sense of the mood and emotion of what they’re saying.

This study combines what we know about the importance of prosody to children’s learning, with what we know about their emerging ability to think about other people’s minds and intentions. For example, past research has shown how mothers use prosody to convey approval and prohibition, and that 5-month-olds smile more in response to the former.

Sakkalou and Gattis first replicated an earlier study by showing that infants aged 14 to 18-months can use an adult’s vocal utterances, specifically including the words “There” vs. “Whoops”, to infer whether they intended an action or not. Twenty-eight toddlers saw an experimenter perform two actions on a toy (for example, pushing it or rolling it), one of which was accompanied by the word “There” as if the action were intended; the other by “Whoops”. Given a chance to handle the toy themselves, the infants were more likely to imitate the action that was accompanied by the word “There” – as if they knew that it had been a deliberate action.

Next, Sakkalou and Gattis analysed the prosody of the experimenter utterances: “There” and “Whoops”. The former was characterised by higher amplitude, longer duration and falling pitch; the latter by a rising pitch contour. The earlier experiment was then replicated with 56 more toddlers (mean age 16 months), but this time the words “There” and “Whoops” were replaced with the Greek words “Nato” and “Ochi” (or vice versa). Crucially, the words signifying a mistake or intentional action were always delivered with the prosodic profile established earlier as being associated with a mistake or intended action. The toddlers were raised in English-speaking homes so there’s no way they could have known the meaning of the words. Nonetheless, the toddlers older than 16 months still imitated more “intentional” actions than accidental actions on the toys, thus suggesting strongly they were able to use the way the words were said to infer which actions were intended and which were accidental.

It’s important to note that the “mistake” vs. “intent” prosodic patterns in the current study do not map simply onto approval/ disapproval – they were more complex, which could explain why it was only the older toddlers who could interpret the difference. This fits with other research showing that infants’ preference for different types of vocalisations changes as they develop, with older infants preferring prosodic patterns that direct their attention whereas younger infants prefer comforting prosody.

“We propose that infants’ understanding of vocal patterns supports their growing understanding of intentions,” Gattis told The Digest. “Together these two forms of understanding shape the development of imitation and communication.”


Sakkalou, E., and Gattis, M. (2012). Infants infer intentions from prosody. Cognitive Development, 27 (1), 1-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2011.08.003

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Brain training for babies actually works (short term, at least)

Products designed to give babies and young children an educational headstart are hugely popular but they’re mostly backed up by weak science. In some cases, for example with educational DVDs, there’s even evidence of potential harm to language development, albeit that this evidence has been challenged by the creators of the DVDs.

Meanwhile, research with adults suggests that so-called brain training exercises (puzzles and memory and attention tasks on a computer) rarely lead to general intellectual benefits. Instead people just get better on the specific training tasks they complete.

Given this background, the prospects for brain training for babies look decidedly shaky. And yet in a new study, a team led by Sam Wass has shown brain training exercises for babies (focused on attention) led to widespread cognitive benefits over a two-week period. “To our knowledge, this is the first report of distal transfer of training effects following cognitive training in participants younger than 4 years old,” they write.

Wass and his colleagues invited 42 healthy, 11-month-old babies to their lab five times over two weeks. Whilst there, half the babies undertook an average of 77 mins of training in screen-based tasks that varied in difficulty according to each baby’s performance. The other babies spent the same time watching TV clips and animations.

The four attentional training tasks all required the babies to use their direction of gaze to create various effects. For example, in the butterfly task, so long as the baby fixated on it, a butterfly “flew” across the screen as distractors (e.g. house) scrolled in the other direction. As soon as the baby stopped fixating the butterfly, the distractors disappeared and the butterfly remained stationary. In another “elephant” task, the babies were rewarded with animations when they succeeded in fixating an elephant rather than a similarly sized distractor.

Compared with the control group, the babies who undertook the training showed improvements in basic lab measures of cognitive performance, completed at the beginning and end of the two-week training period, including: task-switching ability (a sign of cognitive control), in sustained attention, faster eye movement reaction times and quicker attention disengagement. The effect sizes ranged from .54 up to 1.06 (generally considered medium to large). The researchers argued this was unlikely to be simply due to greater motivation in the trained babies – for example, the improvements to sustained attention were larger towards “interesting stimuli”, indicating a selectivity in the effects. The researchers were surprised that there were no working memory benefits, but said this could be because working memory “is weak at this early age”.

In free play in front of a puppet theatre, somewhat paradoxically (given their increased ability at sustained attention), the trained babies showed a trend toward more, shorter glances. The researchers reasoned this could be because the training had given the babies’ greater flexible control of their attention, depending on context. This is an important result because past research has linked this gaze style at 9 months with superior language development at 31 months. In general, Wass and his team said attentional control could be a “tool for learning” that aids the later acquisition of other skills.

” … It is striking that we found changes following briefer training periods than those used by other studies [with older children],” the researchers said. ” … Further work is required to assess whether this is because infant brains are more plastic and more readily amenable to training or because eye-gaze contingent training is more immersive in comparison with the point-and-click computer interface [using a mouse] used by other groups.”

Wass and his colleagues conceded that more research was needed to assess whether the observed training effects would last into the medium and long term. A possibility is that training effects in babies are incredibly fast, but also quick to dissipate. Regardless, for the time being, this is a study that’s bound to excite competitive parents and educational entrepreneurs alike.

ResearchBlogging.orgWass, S., Porayska-Pomsta, K., and Johnson, M. (2011). Training Attentional Control in Infancy. Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.004

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Babies prefer Picasso

Still life with guitar by Picasso [c.]

Psychologists who study art appreciation have their work cut out. How does one begin to untangle cultural influences from more basic perceptual factors – the cachet from the contours? Well one way is to study babies, because they’re obviously too young to know about cultural fads and artistic reputations.

Trix Cacchione and her team at the University of Zurich presented nine-month old babies with paintings by the cubist painter Picasso and the impressionist Monet. Their first aim was to see if the babies could tell the difference between the two painting styles. They did this by continually presenting the babies with different paintings by one of the artists until they grew bored (known as “habituation”) and then seeing if the babies treated the sight of a painting by the other artist as somehow different, and therefore more worthy of their attention. The finding here was that babies who’d habituated to Monet were thereafter more attracted to a painting by Picasso, as revealed when new paintings by each artist were presented together side by side. There was clearly something novel about a Picasso painting that they perceived and found stimulating, which led them to look at it more. However, the reverse wasn’t true. Babies habituated to Picasso preferred to look at yet another Picasso painting rather than enjoy the greater novelty of a Monet.

Next the researchers checked the babies could distinguish between different paintings by the same artist. They found that babies habituated to one particular Picasso were attracted to a new Picasso more than a repeat. Ditto for Monet – the babies preferred a new Monet to a familiar old one.

So why did the babies prefer to look at yet another Picasso, even after they’d seen loads of them, rather than enjoy the novelty of a Monet? The implication is that the appeal of a Picasso overpowers the novelty of a Monet. There’s clearly something about Picasso, but what is it?

Cacchione’s team looked at a whole range of factors: Picasso’s use of vivid colours, sharp contours, and his use of squares and other figurative elements (Monet pictures, by contrast, are more subtle and realistic). But each time the researchers removed one of these elements, for example by using black and white pictures of the paintings, the babies still preferred Picasso.

The most likely explanation then is that it’s something about these elements in combination that appeals to babies. One further factor, which the current study didn’t look at, is luminance or “perceived lightness”. The researchers said it’s possible that babies prefer Picasso because of the greater luminance of his paintings. Crucially, luminance is processed mostly by the dorsal visual stream (the “where pathway”). This would fit with the idea that babies don’t yet have a fully developed visual system – in particular the ventral stream (also known as the “what pathway”) is immature.

“Many of Monet’s paintings have so little luminance contrast that it is impossible to recognise their elements on the basis of dorsal processing,” the researchers said. “It is possible that infants preferred paintings by Picasso, because they were easier to process and afforded the most stimulation to their still developing visual system.”

A final possibility is that there’s something about Monet that babies don’t like, rather than there being something particularly appealing about Picasso. Only further studies with more babies and different artists will get to the truth of why there appears to be something about Picasso.

ResearchBlogging.orgCacchione, T., Möhring, W., and Bertin, E. (2011). What is it about Picasso? Infants’ categorical and discriminatory abilities in the visual arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts DOI: 10.1037/a0024129

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Men are as motivated by cute baby faces as women

Cuteness as an evolutionary adaptation

Both Charles Darwin and Konrad Lorenz, the pioneering ethologist, wrote about the appeal of baby faces as a possible adaptive mechanism. They surmised that babies’ perceived cuteness could be nature’s way of ensuring the little terrors get looked after. Now a team led by Morten Kringelbach and Christine Parsons has shown that men are as motivated by baby faces as women. Kringelbach is the same researcher who a few years ago showed that looking at baby faces, as opposed to adult faces, is associated with a distinct pattern of brain activity in the orbitofrontal cortex – a kind of neural “cuteness response”.

For the new study, 31 men and 37 women (average age 20 years), all with limited experience of babies, looked at photographs of the faces of 70 babies (aged 3 to 12 months), each shown for five seconds, and rated their attractiveness. These results conformed to cultural stereotypes about gender differences, with the women tending to rate the babies as more attractive than the men (no such gender difference emerged for the rating of adult faces). A desire to conform to gender roles could have played a role here. However, both men and women rated as more attractive those baby faces that most closely conformed to the cute ideal: a large rounded forehead, large low-set eyes, a short and narrow nose and a small chin.

In another part of the experiment, performed either before or after the attractiveness ratings, the participants were able to press a button repeatedly to control how long each baby face remained on the screen. This was taken as a measure of how much the participants were motivated to look at the faces. In this case the men scored just the same as the women. Moreover, for both men and women it was those faces that most closely conformed to the cute ideal that they made the effort to look at for longer.

“Our findings indicate that both men and women appraise what is colloquially described as a ‘cute’ unfamiliar infant positively, and they will work to see that infant for longer than an infant with less ‘cute’ features,” the researchers said. “This is in line with previous studies showing that ‘cuter’ infants are rated as more friendly, cheerful, and likeable and are rated as more ‘adoptable’.”

ResearchBlogging.orgParsons, C., Young, K., Kumari, N., Stein, A., and Kringelbach, M. (2011). The Motivational Salience of Infant Faces Is Similar for Men and Women. PLoS ONE, 6 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020632

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

For infants, walking is more than just another step in motor development

When an infant starts walking, this important achievement is more than just a milestone in motor control. According to Melissa Clearfield, the child’s newfound locomotor skill arrives hand-in-hand with a raft of other changes in social behaviour and maturity. This is an unfolding, interactive process of development that before now has been little explored by psychologists.

Clearfield first had 17 non-walking infants (aged between 9 and 11 months) twice spend ten minutes exploring a 3m by 3m floor area dotted with toys, and with their mother and three other people positioned in each corner. The infants first explored the area crawling and then in a baby walker (this piece of equipment allows infants who can’t yet walk to move around in an upright position as if walking).

The infants spent the same amount of time interacting with toys and people, gesturing and vocalising, whether they were crawling or in the baby walker. In other words, there wasn’t anything about being in an upright position per se that changed the social behaviour of these children.

Next, Clearfield had a new group of 16 infants (also aged nine to eleven months) perform the same task, except these children were all walkers. These walking infants, even though they were age-matched to the first group, spent considerably more time vocalising and making socially-directed gestures, such as pointing at or waving a toy whilst looking at their mothers. Overall, the walkers spent three times as much time interacting with their mothers, and twice as much time interacting with the toys, compared with crawlers of the same age.

A final study tested another set of fourteen 9-month-old infants on the same exploratory task, once a month for six months, to see how their behaviour changed, not by virtue of their age, but rather according to whether they had yet learned to walk (onset of walking ability varied across the group, but all were walking by 15 months).

Irrespective of age, Clearfield found that infants gestured far more during their first walk session compared with their last crawl session, and that they interacted with their mothers more, and their toys less, during their first walk session compared with both their last crawl session and their second walk session.

By twelve months of age, eight members of this final infant group were walking, whilst six were still crawling. Comparing the walkers and crawlers revealed once again that the walkers interacted more with their mothers and performed more social gestures. ‘This more mature mode of interaction did not come about through age or more experience in the world,’ Clearfield said, ‘but rather, the transition to independent walking itself changed how infants interact with others.’

The message is that the same developmental processes that lead an infant to take its first steps, also seem to drive changes in their social behaviour. Importantly, the baby walker study showed this isn’t simply because of different opportunities afforded by being in an upright position. ‘Under this explanation,’ Clearfield concluded, ‘processes such as perception, attention, memory, cognition, and social behaviours all shift to accommodate infants’ new mode of moving through the world, and each process affects and is affected by the changes in the other processes. From this dynamic view, learning to walk becomes much more than simply a motor milestone; instead, it becomes the core of system-wide changes across many developing domains.’

ResearchBlogging.orgClearfield, M. (2011). Learning to walk changes infants’ social interactions. Infant Behavior and Development, 34 (1), 15-25 DOI: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2010.04.008

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Unborn fetuses demonstrate their sociability after just 14 weeks gestation

The idea that humans are social animals has become a truism. Among other things, experts point to the gregarious behaviour of babies – their precocious talents for mimicry and face recognition. What about human behaviour pre-birth? Is that social too? Using what they call the ‘experiment of nature’ provided by twin fetuses, Umberto Castiello and his team have shown that by the 14th week of gestation, unborn twins are already directing arm movements at each other, and by the 18th week these ‘social’ gestures have increased to 29 per cent of all observed movements. In contrast, the proportion of self-directed actions reduced over the same period.

Furthermore, the ‘kinematics’ of the twins’ ‘caressing’ arm movements to each other’s head and back were distinct from movements aimed at the uterine wall or at most parts of the their own bodies. That is, the social movements were longer-lasting and slower to decelerate than most other fetal movements, making them similar to the kind of movements fetuses learn to make towards their own eyes. This suggests that the fetuses recognise on some level that there is something special about their twin.

The researchers made their observations using four-dimensional (3-D plus changes over time) ultrasound scans of five women pregnant with twins. These were performed twice for twenty minutes – at the 14th and 18th weeks of gestation.

‘The prenatal “social” interactions described in this paper epitomise the congenital propensity for sociality of primates in general and of humans in particular,’ the researchers said, ‘grounding for the first time such long-held intuition on quantitative empirical results.’ Castiello and his colleagues added that further research of this kind could one day reveal the links between social behaviour patterns in the uterus and the later appearance of developmental disorders associated with social impairments.

ResearchBlogging.orgCastiello, U., Becchio, C., Zoia, S., Nelini, C., Sartori, L., Blason, L., D’Ottavio, G., Bulgheroni, M., and Gallese, V. (2010). Wired to Be Social: The Ontogeny of Human Interaction. PLoS ONE, 5 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013199

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Mothers who attend baby signing classes are more stressed

A survey of 178 mothers has found that those who take their children to Baby Signing classes are more stressed than those who don’t. Baby Signing involves using gestures in an attempt to communicate with pre-verbal or minimally lingual infants. The idea is hugely popular. Tiny Talk, a UK company, runs over 400 classes each week.

One claim of Baby Signing classes is that it is beneficial to children’s language development. The evidence for this is equivocal. Another claim is that by improving child-parent communication, the classes help relieve parental stress. It’s this latter claim that Neil Howlett and his colleagues have examined in their study of mothers recruited via signing classes, internet sites, toddler groups and community organisations in the south east of England. Eighty-nine mothers who attended Baby Signing classes with their infants were compared with 89 mothers who did not.

Howlett’s team used the 120-item self-report Parenting Stress Index (PSI) to measure the mothers’ stress levels. Although mothers who attended signing classes reported being more stressed than those who didn’t, the researchers didn’t obtain baseline stress measures (prior to class attendance) so they have no way of knowing if the classes caused the increased stress or if stressed mothers are simply more likely to attend the classes. No evidence was found that more months spent signing with one’s child was associated with even greater stress, so the idea that signing causes the stress looks unlikely.

Howlett’s team think the signing mothers were probably more stressed in the first place and that’s why they took their children to signing classes (a plausible suggestion given that the classes claim to help reduce stress). Consistent with this, the signing mothers recorded particularly high scores on the ‘child domain’ of the PSI, which indicates they were stressed about their child’s behaviour. Moreover, the finding chimes with past research showing that mothers who enrol their preschool children in academic focused activities also have heightened anxiety.

‘Gesture classes claim to reduce stress and create a better bond between child and mother,’ the researchers concluded. ‘Our results find no evidence for this and even suggest that the effect may be detrimental.’

ResearchBlogging.orgHowlett, N., Kirk, E., and Pine, K. (2010). Does ‘Wanting the Best’ create more stress? The link between baby sign classes and maternal anxiety. Infant and Child Development DOI: 10.1002/icd.705

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to Psychologist magazine article: ‘The great baby signing debate’.