Do babies really imitate humans?
Q: Do babies really imitate humans?
A: Virginia Slaughter, Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland says:
Yes they do. But not from birth.
Timing of this developmental achievement is the issue that our recent study addressed.
Back in 1977, an experiment was published in the journal Science, claiming that newborn babies could imitate facial and hand gestures.
This report sparked many studies on the topic and, over the past 30 years, the findings have been mixed. Some experiments proclaim positive results while others cannot find evidence that newborns imitate.
One weakness of this research is that babies are almost always tested on a single occasion.
Also, different researchers have presented different gestures to test for imitation: some showed babies tongue poking and mouth opening, others showed happy and sad facial expressions, while others presented vocal sounds like "mmm" and "eee".
We improved on this research by presenting more gestures than have previously been included in one study, and by repeating the test four times when infants were one to 12-weeks-old.
We expected to find that babies imitate at least one or two gestures, but to our surprise we found no evidence of imitation.
Although babies did pay close attention to the adult model and they did tend to increase their activity when the adult presented different gestures, babies did not precisely copy what they saw the adult do.
This tells us that, rather than being innate, imitation is a skill that is learned in the first months of life.
One possibility is that babies could learn to imitate based on watching other people imitate them.
This idea has been suggested previously, but there is not much research on it since so many people were focused on finding out if newborns could imitate.
We recently did a study which revealed that Australian parents imitate their babies once every two minutes on average.
This is a powerful means by which infants can learn to link their gestures with those of another person, and thereby learn to imitate.
Our findings should come as encouraging news for anyone who has noticed that their newborns don't imitate them.
That's perfectly normal, and they almost certainly will over time.