By Talaris Institute
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Little Cameron can walk – and life is suddenly very different. At 11 months old, he can travel just about anywhere very quickly. The problem is, he’s often quicker than his mother, so it’s a challenge keeping Cameron safe while he explores his world.

Today Cameron has discovered the pretty red tassels dangling from the edge of the tablecloth. He can’t see what’s on top of the table, and doesn’t realise if he pulls on one of the tassels a vase of flowers will come tumbling down. Across the room, his mother looks up with fear and surprise as she realises she’s too far away to stop him. As Cameron begins to reach for a tassel, he glances back at his mother. The look on her face tells Cameron what he needs to know, and he hesitates long enough for mum to rescue him. His mother, with a sigh of relief, quickly removes the enticing tablecloth.

It’s in your face

Cameron used what researchers call ‘social referencing’ to decide what to do. In other words, he ‘read’ his mother’s face, recognised the fearful expression, and realised it might not be safe to pull the tassel.

Cameron, like other babies close to 12 months old, can interpret the emotions he sees on his mother’s face. Amazingly, he knows what certain facial expressions and tones of voice mean – from ‘Don’t do that’ to ‘It’s OK to play with that’. By watching adults’ facial expressions and listening to their tone of voice, babies as young as 10 months can use emotional information to decide what to do. As adults, we do this all the time to obtain feedback from the world around us, but it’s fascinating to learn how early we develop this skill.

Research has shown that by 12 months, babies use visual information from the faces of their caregivers to make sense of situations that are new or unclear. For example, your child might check the expression on your face and the emotion shown before deciding to pick up a new toy.

Recognising visual cues

To see whether babies would use social referencing to make decisions, researchers had to create a situation that would be new and unclear to young children.

In one experiment, researchers created a ‘visual cliff’ – a glass-covered space that had a ‘deep end’ and seemed unsafe to cross. As they crawled over the glass to get a toy, the babies reached the ‘deep end’ and weren’t sure whether they should keep going. At this point, the babies looked at their mothers – and the researchers studied what the babies did.

The mothers and their babies were divided into two groups. Mothers in the first group encouraged their babies to come towards the toy at the other end. As each child approached the visual cliff, the mother smiled, created a happy face and encouraged her baby to cross the table using only her facial expressions.

The second group of mothers also placed the toy at the deep end of the cliff. But as their babies moved closer to the ‘edge’, these mothers showed a fearful face, again without talking or using their hands to add to the communication.
Here’s what happened …
When the mothers posed a fearful expression, not one of the 17 babies ventured across the deep side. But almost all of the babies who saw their mothers’ happy faces – 14 out of 19 – crossed to the deep end. These babies recognised their mothers’ expressions and decided what to do based on what they ‘read’ in their mother’s faces.

Babies also use social referencing to make decisions about new objects. For instance, one study looked at whether babies would play with certain new toys, depending on how their mothers reacted to them. The results were clear – one-year-olds were less likely to play with a new toy if their mother reacted negatively to it. They were more likely to play with a toy if their mother expressed positive emotions about it.

Another study looked at when social referencing begins and how it develops over the first two years. They found that babies used social referencing consistently by 10-13 months. Babies from 6-9 months old looked at their mothers in unclear situations, but they seemed more concerned about whether their mother was nearby – and they didn’t pay much attention to their emotional expressions. The older babies (14-22 months) used social referencing at times, but at other times they didn’t. The researchers thought that these children could tell when their parents’ emotions were real in the experiment and when they were pretending.

Helpful parenting tips

What does this mean for you and your baby? It means that your one-year-old is watching your face and learning from your expressions all the time. Your baby is developing the important skill of reading faces and emotions – and you are the first and most important teacher around. With this in mind, you can:

  • Have fun interacting face-to-face with your baby. Let your baby see and learn about a wide range of emotional expressions.
  • Since your baby is ‘reading’ the emotions you express, try to provide clear examples of these emotions. Sometimes our faces might say one thing while our voices or actions say another.
  • Your face tells your child a lot about how you feel. Share the things you enjoy with your baby along with communicating what to avoid.
  • Use positive emotions to introduce new things to your baby – like new people, new pets and new toys.

Social referencing is something we do every day, whether we are aware of it or not. It’s an important skill that helps us throughout our lives – and it begins very early in life. You are teaching your child many important things as you go through the day, especially about emotions. Your baby learns by watching you. 

A baby who is not looking at your face and using your emotions to help interpret the world might be showing the first signs of a developmental disorder. If you have concerns, speak with your GP, child health nurse or paediatrician.