When closely observed, the interactions between babies and their caregivers can be deeply revealing
Anyone who has ever participated in a Parent-Child Mother Goose group will have been delighted and amazed by an interaction they have observed at some moment between an infant and its parent or caregiver in the group. Of course, there is a lot happening in the continuous flow of these exchanges all the time, and as we get caught up in this flow it is sometimes only a third party, such as a group facilitator, who has the opportunity to 'take notes', as it were, and then to reflect back a delightful, telling observation..
When addressing our 2021 Annual Gathering, Associate Professor Campbell Paul, President of the World Association for Infant Mental Health, illustrated his talk with some arresting images and videos that gave us an insight into the kind of 'notes' scientists have been taking as they have observed baby/adult interactions. Some of these images, videos and observations seemed so clearly germane to our practice in Parent-Child Mother Goose that we felt we should share them here.
Please note that the commentary below is entirely our own, and should not be read as representing the views of Campbell Paul in any way.
You say, I say
In 1977, Andrew Meltzoff and M. Keith Moore created a stir when they reported that babies just two to three weeks old imitated facial expressions they observed in adults.
Since then, others scientists have replicated these findings, and have mapped out other ways in which babies can imitate adult behaviour. In 2005, Emese Nagy and her colleagues showed that babies less than four days old could imitate extensions of the index finger, and that with practice their imitations became more rapid and accurate, implying both learning and intention on the baby's part. In subsequent work, Nagy and her colleagues showed that very young babies could even imitate two- and three-finger gestures.
In other observations, Nagy has noticed that young babies may begin to initiate 'conversations' with an adult using behaviours they have imitated from that adult as a 'provocation' to further engagement.
We came across the following clip of Professor Colwyn Trevarthen (whom Campbell Paul cited often, although he did not show this particular video) in which Trevarthen even describes one particular ten week old baby's interaction with its mother as a 'lecture' on the baby's part.
Of course, even well-attuned parents or caregivers are likely to miss at least some of their baby's responses to specific cues. The baby's response may not be instantaneous, or the parent/caregiver may simply have trouble believing that such a young baby is actually capable of a meaningful response.
That said, the moral of the finding above does seem clear: never underestimate the purposefulness of baby's communications.
'Still face' experiments
You might need to brace yourself a little for this.
In a famous paper published in 1975, Edward Tronick and his colleagues described how a baby behaves when a normally interacting adult suddenly display a still, emotionless face (the so-called 'still face' experiment).
Here is Edward Tronick describing the experiment.
Extending the design of the original experiment in 2017, Nagy and her colleagues turned their attention to the baby's behaviour after the adult has resumed normal interactivity, and found that the baby continued to exhibit higher levels of distress, tending to avert their gaze and crying.
Taken from this 2017 study, the images above show a baby while the adult is interacting normally (at left), the same baby at the moment the adult has begun to display a 'still face' (centre) and this baby after the adult has been maintaining a 'still face' for 20 seconds.
So, you may ask, did we really need scientists to tell us that babies want not only our physical presence but also some interaction from us? Personally I'm not so sure — but these experiments do graphically illustrate what the implications might be for a baby if their primary caregiver is unable, for whatever reason, to interact with them attentively.
The visual cliff
Scientists first began studying how crawling babies react when presented with the opportunity to crawl over an apparent (ie, not real) 'visual cliff' in 1960.
More recently, Joseph Campos has used a variation of this classic experiment to study how the facial emotion shown by a nearby parent affects the behaviour of the crawling infant in this situation.
This experiment dramatically demonstrates, in the words of Joseph Campos, "the role of non-verbal communication in determining the child's behaviour in uncertain contexts."
It would seem to follow fairly clearly from this that everything we do in a Parent-Child Mother Goose session that brings joy and delight to parents and caregivers will also have a positive spin-off effect for the infants in their care, encouraging them to see the world as a place to be explored with confidence.
'Melodic patterns' felt in the body precede and underpin language
Particularly interesting among the clips Campbell Paul shared at our Annual Gathering are those where Emeritus Professor Colwyn Trevarthen explains how 'melodic patterns' the baby encounters in interactions with its caregiver, and which it experiences bodily, precede and underpin the development of language, thinking and problem-solving.
Even pre-lingual babies grasp 'the sense of a narrative'
We were fascinated by Colwyn Trevarthen's account of how even a very young baby hears, and is interested by, 'the sense of a narrative' in a story — the way it's spoken, the changes of rhythm and loudness and excitement — all without any understanding of the actual words. Later, when the child does know the words, these, in effect, serve as labels for an experience with which the child is already familiar.
What Colwyn Trevarthen is saying here is really quite remarkable, we think — and yet, at the same time, strikingly consonant with the principles and practice of Parent-Child Mother Goose.
When we take part in the fun and pleasure of a Parent-Child Mother Goose session, there is probably nothing further from our minds than scientists and the full-on application of scientific method — and yet, we too, in our own ways, do a great deal of 'paying attention', of noticing the finer points of interactions between infant and caregiver.
Truly, there are many different ways of observing that magical interplay — and they are all of value.
Peter Dann and Marilyn Dann