Thoughtful Parenting: Communicating with eye contact and facial expressions

Within hours of being born, newborn babies show a preference for the face of their mother. Newborns are capable of differentiating between their mother’s face and the faces of strangers. Faces and facial expressions — and how we look at them — are powerful for their ability to unite and teach.

As one of the first milestones babies can achieve, eye gaze lets parents know their baby sees them and recognizes them as important. When parents’ and babies’ eyes meet, an emotional connection is established. Mutual gaze is a shared communicative experience revealing reciprocal interest, connection, as well as states of mind and feelings.

With significance in attachment and bonding, eye gaze represents emotional development. Helping the baby gather information about the external world and other people’s emotions, eye gaze is also a form of intellectual development. Researchers at the University of Cambridge in England say that when we make eye contact with a baby, we synchronize our brainwaves to theirs. This synchronicity, in turn, promotes both learning and communication skills.

Though babies follow their own developmental timeline, they typically start to make eye contact with caregivers at 6 to 8 weeks old. According to Dr. Victoria Leong, Developmental Cognitive Neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, “When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signaling their availability and intention to communicate with each other. We found that both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync with their partner. This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronizing when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.”

When babies look you in the eyes, they are sharing their intention to communicate. Researchers measured this by counting the number of vocalizations babies made to the adult experimenter. When the adult made direct eye contact, babies made more vocalizations, reflecting a greater effort to communicate. Babies who made longer vocalizations established higher brainwave synchronicity with the adult.

A baby’s ability to differentiate emotional expressions appears to develop during the first six months. Researchers from the University of Geneva in Switzerland measured the ability of 6-month-old babies to make connections between a voice — expressing happiness or anger — and an emotional expression on a face — of happiness or anger. Findings from the Geneva BabyLab show that babies look at an angry face (especially the mouth) longer if they previously heard a happy voice. This reaction to something new demonstrates that babies have the ability to transfer emotional information from the auditory mode to the visual mode.

Humans of all ages rely on a variety of information to learn, understand, identify and connect. As kids, many of us were taught that looking people in their eyes shows attention and respect. But it also does much more than that — it creates a bond for greater understanding and communication. And by looking into someone else’s eyes, we are primed to read facial expressions and discern emotions.

Starting from day one, babies are ready to use contextual clues all around them to make sense of the world and communicate their feelings. When we talk or sing to babies or cuddle or play with them, cultivate their ability to decode and communicate by looking them in the eyes and expressing ideas and emotions.

Deirdre Pepin is the Resource Development and Public Relations Coordinator at Horizons Specialized Services. If your child is younger than 3 and you have questions about his or her development, contact Lindsey Garey Horizons’ early intervention coordinator at 970-871-8558 or

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