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What’s He Feeling? Just Ask Another Baby

Photograph by AFP/Getty Images

You know how your baby sometimes gets a certain look on his face, and you wonder whether it means he’s tired or upset (or making you a, um, present)? While you might have trouble figuring out what he’s feeling, a new study found there’s someone who probably has no difficulty determining your little one’s mood: another baby. The study showed that by the time tots are 5 months old, they can recognize each other’s emotions.

“Newborns can’t verbalize to their mom or dad that they are hungry or tired, so the first way they communicate is through affect or emotion,” said Ross Flom, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University. “Thus it is not surprising that in early development, infants learn to discriminate changes in affect.”

If you’re wondering how Flom and Bahrick gauged the babies’ responses to their peers’ emotions, it was done by the magic of TV. First, they’d seat an infant in front of two monitors: One displayed video of a happy, smiling baby; the other showed a sad, frowning tot. When audio was played of a third infant making happy noises, the baby participating in the study looked longer at the video of the baby with positive facial expressions, the researchers found. And if the researchers played an audio of negative baby vocal-noises, the infant would turn his attention to the sad baby video.

It can take infants a little longer to read adults’ emotions, but not much: If they’re familiar with a grown-up, they can gauge how he’s feeling by the time they’re 6 months old; 7 months for big folk they don’t know well.

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