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Newborns Benefit From Observing Caregivers, Study Says

Mom smiling at newborn


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Key Takeaways

  • Newborns actively observe their caregivers and try to imitate their movements.
  • Interaction with newborns is beneficial for their development.
  • Allowing a newborn to observe everyday tasks helps them learn about their environment.

Newborns do more than just "eat, sleep, and poop," as it turns out. A new research study found that babies 0–3 months old benefit from observing caregivers handling everyday objects and from early interactions.

Newborns do not just passively exist before they can move on their own, the researchers note. Instead, young babies carefully observe their caregivers’ movements and prepare for attempts to imitate them from day one.

Knowing this, parents should place their newborn in view of their daily activities whenever possible and make an effort to encourage motor skills like reaching and grasping even before the baby begins to do these things on their own.

About the Study

The study, published Infant Behavior and Development, conducted a literature review of the last 50 years of neonatal and young infant studies. Its authors claim that even though babies under 3 months don't show visible signs of trying to reach for and grasp objects, they absorb information related to these skills when they watch their parent or caretaker.

Priscilla Ferronato, PhD

Our work contradicts the perception that young infants are passive beings and adopts a perspective that they are active from early on. We suggest activities to promote opportunities for infants to learn how to use their own bodies, especially their hands, in a functional way during everyday care practices.

— Priscilla Ferronato, PhD

Because newborns keenly observe their caretakers' movements, the researchers note that they should be placed where they can see their adults whenever possible. The authors also advise parents to encourage gross motor development by providing activities that stimulate this development even during the newborn stage.

The study's first author, Priscilla Ferronato, PhD, a professor at the Health Sciences Institute of Paulista University (UNIP) in São Paulo, Brazil, explains that because babies imitate facial expressions from day one, we can infer that they are also watching, learning, and storing information about gross motor movements.

Just as infants can understand language long before they can speak, they also are cognitively preparing to start using their hands even before we see them trying.

"Our work contradicts the perception that young infants are passive beings and adopts a perspective that they are active from early on," says Dr. Ferronato. "We suggest activities to promote opportunities for infants to learn how to use their own bodies, especially their hands, in a functional way during everyday care practices."

How Should I Interact With My Newborn?

The study offers a few suggestions of how to stimulate your baby during the first 3 months of life. These include offering a finger to hold or placing objects of different textures into the infant's hands to let them explore how they feel. They also propose shining a flashlight in a darkened room so that the beam is within the baby's reach.

Pamela Green, Educational Consultant

When an infant meets our eyes, then this is an invitation to join them. I may slowly hold an object such as a soft rattle so that they can see this. The child may turn their head away and I know they have no interest, or they may reach for the object [indicating interest].

— Pamela Green, Educational Consultant

Sometimes, letting babies simply observe is preferable to offering too many objects or trying too aggressively to capture the infant's interest. Pamela Green, educational consultant and founder of Ananda Montessori, a Montessori Parent-Infant and Child program, emphasizes the importance of observing infants and letting these observations guide our interactions with them.

"We always wait for readiness, otherwise we are interrupting their process. An infant looking at light, a mirror, at anything, is [in] their process and we don't interrupt this with our needs to provide objects," she explains.

Careful observation also helps you know when to interact and when to step back. "When an infant meets our eyes, then I feel this is an invitation to join them. I may slowly hold an object such as a soft rattle so that they can see this. The child may turn their head away and I know they have no interest, or they may reach for the object [indicating interest]," notes Green.

What to Know About Positioners

Letting your infant observe the world lying on their back or on their stomach may allow for the freedom of movement that best supports their development. While propping your baby up in a baby seat or a swing is one way to provide them with a good view of your daily activities, you also will want to consider some implications of using positioners when deciding how often to use them.

The World Health Organization recommends that children under 5 spend no more than 1 hour at a time restrained or in sitting devices to allow for enough physical activity throughout the day. Too much time in containment devices like car seats or baby swings also can contribute to positional plagiocephaly (a flat spot on the head).

Positioners are never safe for sleep, so if your baby falls asleep in one, move them to a safe sleep space as soon as you notice. Green points to the Montessori philosophy, in which caretakers do not place an infant in a position that they do not move into on their own

"What is happening during this time is freedom of movement," she explains, which allows babies to eventually try out the movements they have been studying so diligently.

What This Means For You

When you bring your baby home, you may be wondering what you should be doing with them. The good news is, nothing complicated is required. Knowing that newborns benefit from observing their caretakers, you can continue with regular tasks like washing bottles or preparing yourself a sandwich while trying to keep yourself within your little one's view. As it feels natural, you may also try a few activities to help stimulate them.

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  2. World Health Organization. Physical activity. Updated November 26, 2020.

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  4. Food and Drug Administration. Do not use infant sleep positioners due to the risk of suffocation. Published April 18, 2019.

  5. American Academy of Pediatrics, Task Force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: updated 2016 recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environmentPediatrics. 2016;138(5):e20162938. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2938