Do you remember your infant stage where your mother would sing lullabies to put you to sleep? The chances of you remembering that are pretty slim. It’s quite obvious that you wouldn’t have any memories of that age group. However, a newborn infant initially recognises the mother by her voice. With that said, often, it’s hard for babies to recognise their parents without hearing their voices. This often leaves the parents disheartened when their babies don’t look for them in a room full of people. Research says that babies only begin to recognise the mother’s voice in their third trimester. But when do babies start to recognise their mothers’ faces?
The Beginning of Social-emotional Development
Newborns find the mother’s familiar voices very soothing and comforting when compared to the strange voices they have never heard before. Studies indicate that until a couple of months of age, babies detect and match faces on the basis of vocal inputs only. Since infants are most exposed to the voices of their parents, they tend to recognise their mother and father first visually as well.
They begin to observe the mothers when they carry them, cuddle them, talk to them, feed them, and make faces to entertain them. The mother is the most common individual a baby sees throughout the day during the first few weeks of life. As time passes, they slowly begin to recognise their parents as the people who offer comfort in many ways. As this understanding develops, the baby begins to show delight at seeing the mother.
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So, while a baby recognises the mother via voice in the initial months, true recognition of your face occurs only after the baby is over 2 months old. During the first several weeks after birth, babies develop emotionally and learn to make social connections. As they grow, they smile to greet people or to show that they are pleased, exhibiting what they’ve learnt so far.
But how do you know that the baby recognises you, and how will this recognition develop over the first few months of the baby’s life?
What Babies do with Familiar Faces – Birth to 2 Months
Newborn babies do not know that they are separate entities. They do not understand why they are suddenly in a different place from the warm, cosy womb they have spent their life in until now. The first two months are crucial as this is the time when the babies start to take control of their limbs. During this phase, the babies communicate with you inadvertently, without this being their goal. They cry when they are uncomfortable or if they are sleepy, cold, hungry, scared or anything else. So, in a way, they have no way of expressing exactly what they are feeling.
A happy baby, who is comfortable, takes interest in things around him/her, but with limited abilities in vision and limb control. Babies’ brains work hard to remember the “faces” they see around them often and try to make connections. As the weeks pass, you will find babies staring intently into your eyes when you pick them up or hold them.
Over the first few weeks of their lives, you must remember that while the babies may not recognise you by face yet, they do find your voice and your smell familiar and comforting. The time that you spend with them in these weeks helps speed up their visual recognition facilities. In a few months, they will be spotting you right across the room in a room full of people.
Over the first two to three months of their lives, babies take a giant leap forward in social and emotional development. At first, they simply make faces to communicate their basic wants. But slowly, they learn that they can use multiple means to communicate and make friendly people (namely, you) do things for them. 2-month-old babies keep experimenting with smiles and gestures to show you that they are happy to see your friendly face.
Kids love other children’s faces, and you will see them most intently observing the faces of their siblings. They show a preference for these faces too, aside from yours.
What Babies do with Familiar Faces- 3 to 5 Months
As they grow and cross their third month milestone, babies become pros at smiling to get you to give them attention. They also use other ‘tools’ like gurgling and cooing in response to your cuddles or talks. You will also find that sometimes they stare intently at you when you come close, observing your face for a smile before breaking out into a toothless one of their own, in response.
As the weeks go by, you will see them show a preference for some faces. You are on their list of favourite people, and so are those whom they see frequently, maybe their grandparents or siblings. Closer to the 5-month mark, they will look into a mirror and see an interesting ‘playmate’ there. They can now recognise you from more than a foot away and will love playing games where they are staring at you and mimicking your actions.
You can help their social and emotional intelligence grow by responding positively to their attempts at smiling or gesturing. Smile at them when they look at you, or talk to them when they gurgle at you. If they lift their arms out to you, you can pick them up, cuddle them, or simply play with their tiny hands. Engage with them when they try out their new skills, so they understand the basics of carrying on a conversation.
These interactions with you also tell the babies that you are their “comfort person,” someone the babies can trust and rely on to keep them happy and comfortable. You also help them see themselves as individuals with opinions and feelings by teaching them gestures and expressions. Until now, babies have been trying to make sense of this weird new world they’ve come into. Now, with these interactions, they learn that they can control what happens with and around them to some extent.
What Baby does with Familiar Faces- 6 to 9 Months
As the babies inch past their sixth month birthday, they begin to differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar faces. You will suddenly see them look very keenly at a stranger’s face and then back to yours. Their ability to recognise those closest to them is well developed by now, and they associate security with their parents.
One downside of this is that now they quickly find out when you are not around them, and may be very distressed when that happens. They now know that just because Mom’s face is hidden by that towel, doesn’t mean Mom isn’t here anymore. But they can and do scan the room for you and check through unfamiliar faces to find yours. A happy baby will suddenly turn quiet or seem uneasy if surrounded only by people he/she is not accustomed to daily.
When you are around, make sure you spend enough time with the baby. Talking, playing, and comforting your kid can reduce the separation anxiety that babies feel at this stage.
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By now, babies can associate their name with themselves and also respond when called. They also know you are “Mom” and they show a clear preference for you over everyone else.
At this stage, babies can sense changes in emotions and facial expressions and react to it. This means that a stranger with a dour expression may terrify them while their father, coming to them with a big smile, makes them happy. Apart from familiar faces, they also recognise familiar or favourite things (such as toys) and pictures (from their favourite storybook or TV show). As they inch close to their ninth month, their recognition skills have grown so much that they can identify their favourite toy even if it is partially hidden. Interestingly, even now, babies do not quite realise that the little one in the mirror is not another baby but just their reflection.
A 2-month-old baby discovers that the familiar, soothing voice he/she has heard all his/her life can be associated with a friendly face. As they progress through the ninth month, they slowly begin to associate your face with security and safety even more deeply and also learn to rely upon you. This is an important part of their social and emotional development. By responding to their early communication attempts positively and by consistently engaging with them, you reassure them and also help them build their own ability to discern who is their primary caregiver.