Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

children image

parent narrative

Interacting (0 - 3 Months) - Relating to Each Other Right From the Startclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

Each baby is a “people person” right from birth – with natural abilities that have caused some to say that these little beings are “prewired” to communicate with others. Even very young babies show interests and abilities that support interaction with those around them. In turn, caregivers promote interaction by treating a baby’s behaviors as a form of communication. Listening and vocal skills develop within the framework of these caregiver-baby interactions. Throughout the first three months, caregivers and babies are learning to understand each other’s communication signals.

Babies’ Interests and Abilities that Support Interaction

Babies have visual preferences and eye gaze patterns in the first three months that support interaction with others. Interaction is also encouraged by babies’ interest in people and objects. The development of intentionality is particularly important to interaction.

Visual Preferences

During the first few months after birth, babies prefer to look at objects that are varied in their shapes and lighting. They like to see something that has angles and curves, as well as differences or contrasts in lightness and darkness. This is why there are mobiles and other baby toys on the market that feature different white and black shapes. Don’t worry if you don’t have one of these products though. Your face will be equally fascinating to your baby for the same reasons. When Max’s mom holds him and he looks into her face, he sees all sorts of different angles and shadows because of the way the light hits her face.

Babies are most attracted to people’s eyes. They also focus best on objects that are seven and a half inches away. Within hours of birth, infants demonstrate the ability to follow objects that are at that distance. Interestingly, a mother’s eyes are about seven and a half inches away from the baby when breastfeeding. This preference for eyes increases even more during the second month of life.

By three months, babies are somewhat less attentive to human faces. It is as if they have stored up all the information about familiar persons and objects they needed.

Eye Gaze

Babies are able to gaze with their eyes soon after birth. By six weeks of age, they are able to look directly into a caregiver’s eyes and hold the look with eyes widening and brightening. They are more likely to begin and continue looking if their caregivers are also looking at them. Avery and her dad seem to spend hours gazing into each other’s eyes. Her dad feels good when Avery looks at him so intently. Her steady gaze suggests to him that he is a special person to her.

By eight weeks, babies can follow caregivers’ movements with their eyes. They will also look more at objects. You may find that you are able to tell what your baby is interested in by watching where he or she is looking. Try talking about the object that your baby seems to be gazing at.

Interest in People

As early as the first month, babies become excited upon seeing objects and people but do not usually respond differently. By their second month, babies have periods of responsiveness that last up to 20 minutes. Max demonstrates this responsiveness by arching, turning, twisting, and kicking. By three months of age, babies demonstrate people recognition by showing certain behaviors when they see certain people. For example, Avery has begun to associate her mom with feeding and begins to suck when she sees her.

Facial Expressions

Babies start smiling soon after birth. At first, their smiles can be thought of as “internal” smiles which occur in response to bodily states – they smile when they feel good inside. For example, Avery gives the sweetest smile right after a satisfying breastfeed. By about three weeks or so, however, babies begin to smile in reaction to sights that interest them. Max smiles when his little cousin dances around in front of him and dangles a toy in his face. At the end of the first month, babies’ smiles become less automatic, but they are still unselective. Babies will respond to both people and objects with whole body movements that include limb and trunk movement and vocalizations. During the third month, as babies become more responsive to people, they will smile less at objects. In turn, their smiles become more social and physically broader, with a crinkling around the eyes. One morning Avery’s mom was astonished to discover Avery smiling up at her as she picked her up from her crib. The smile felt more “true” than it had in the past as Avery’s eyes lit up and her whole face got in on the act.

Indeed, the facial muscles of very young babies are quite highly developed resulting in expressions that resemble displeasure, fear, sorrow, anger, joy, and disgust. While no one really thinks that babies actually feel these subtle emotional states, their facial expressions do have recognizable patterns. For example, Max’s aunt notices what she calls his “cry face” – Max’s face initially sobers; then his brows knit and a frown begins. His cheeks become flushed, his lower lip quivers, and his eyes partially close. Soon his lips pull back as he opens his mouth, then turns down the corners. He begins to catch his breath. This type of “displeasure” facial expression is common to babies.


Within the first week of life, babies seem to mimic large hand gestures, tongue protrusions, and mouth openings. These first “imitations” are reflexive in nature, however, more like a yawn than true imitations. Caregivers, however, often treat these imitations as social and communicative. Avery’s dad likes to wave his hands back at Avery when he notices Avery waving her hands like her mommy does when she talks.

By one month of age, babies may try to imitate a caregiver’s pitch and duration of speech sounds. Max’s mom notices that he makes lower sounds when playing with his great uncle who speaks with a deep voice than he does when he is enjoying her own higher-pitched voice.

Search and Recognition Behaviors

Caregivers do give high signal value to their baby’s head movements. Babies will turn their heads to view human faces. Upon sighting a face, Avery’s eyes widen, her face broadens, and she tilts her head and lifts it towards the face. This type of response helps to attract adults to Avery, especially because, like other babies, she does not demonstrate these recognition behaviors to nonhuman sound sources.


By one month, a baby will gaze at caregiver’s face and vocalize. When the caregiver vocalizes back, the baby may vocalize again. By three months, babies will respond to the vocalizations of caregivers with vocalizations of their own. If you are face-to-face with your baby and make a sound, your baby may make a sound back. Babies are most likely to vocalize when their caregiver’s respond to them verbally. Avery’s mom notices that Avery is more likely to continue “speaking” if she says something to her instead of just responding with a touch, look, or smile.

Developing Intentionality

Babies need to develop intentionality in order to interact with others. Intentionality can be described as an awareness of self. Crying helps develop intentionality, as babies learn that when they cry their caregivers will respond. Once this pattern is learned, babies start to anticipate their caregiver’s response and will pause after an initial cry, as if waiting for a response. Caregivers further encourage the development of intentionality by behaving as if infants’ vocalizations or movements have meaning. Max’s nan likes to talk to him, pausing frequently to see if he will do or say something. She interprets even the slightest turn of his head as his way of talking a turn in the conversation.

Caregivers’ Support for Interaction

While the interests and abilities of babies provide an important foundation, how caregivers react to their babies’ behaviors seems key to the success of infant-caregiver interactions. Successful interactions, in turn, promote further development of interaction skills. Caregivers support their babies’ involvement in interactions through awareness of their babies’ internal states and through their own behaviors when interacting with their infants. They may also use a special type of “child-directed” speech to encourage interaction.

Awareness of Babies’ Internal States

Adults adjust their behaviors based on babies’ states of wakefulness. Babies have established patterns in the womb but these patterns quickly change after birth and their states become more regulated by bodily processes such as breathing, hunger, digestion, and elimination. Gradually, babies are influenced by their caregivers’ patterns and move from random sleep patterns closer to adult sleep-awake cycles. Probably not as quickly as most sleep-deprived parents would like!

Avery’s parents have learned that there are appropriate times to play with her – when she is receptive to interacting – and also that there are times to leave her alone. At any given moment, caregivers must determine the appropriate amount of stimulation based upon their baby’s level of attention. By three months of age, babies can maintain a fairly constant internal state, so they can be attentive for longer periods. If there is a high level of incoming stimulation, a baby’s internal state may be affected. Max’s mom has noticed that if there is a lot going on around him he either becomes upset and turns away or becomes excited himself. She has learned to read these signals to tell when he needs to reduce the amount of activity around Max so that he will be able to stay calmer and more receptive to interaction and learning.

Behaviors that Provide a Foundation for Interaction

Four caregiver behaviors provide a foundation for interaction with babies: preparatory activities, state-setting activities, communication framework maintenance, and baby-like action modifications. Preparatory activities include those actions caregiver’s take to reduce the physical discomfort of babies, such as feeding or calming the upset baby. State-setting activities change the surroundings to focus babies’ attention on caregivers, and may include changing their babies’ position to face them and changing their own vocal pitch to sound more interesting to their babies. Initially, state-setting activities are face-to-face. At four- to six-weeks, caregivers may introduce objects by bringing them into their baby’s field of view. In order to better focus the baby on the object, caregivers will shake the object and vocalize using their baby’s name frequently. When caregivers repeat these actions every time an object is introduced, babies learn part of a communication sequence. These caregiver behaviors also help babies develop joint attention. Joint attention occurs when two people are focused on the same object, person or event and babies develop it gradually. Communication framework maintenance behaviors encourage babies to stay in interactions and include lowering of the voice and patting, rocking or tapping. Baby-like action modifications include baby talk, prolonged gaze, exaggerated facial expressions, body positioning, and imitating babies’ movements. These behaviors occur regardless of a caregiver’s experience with babies. Even if they feel uncomfortable around very young babies, most adults with an interest in interacting will have their own natural skills that will allow them to draw a baby into an interaction.

Using Child-Directed Speech

Witness this exchange between Avery and her great-grandmother:
Nanny: Oooooh! You are such a widdle biddie baby girl aren’t you?
Avery: (smiles)
Nanny: Ooo-aaaah! Yes, yes, you are. You are SWEET widdle girl!

Researchers would call Nanny’s speaking pattern “child-directed” or “infant-directed speech”. It is more commonly known as “baby talk”. This way of talking uses higher, more variable pitch and exaggerated stress compared to speech directed to other adults or older children. This special way of talking to babies has been found in different cultures. It is believed to help hold infants’ attention. It also helps create attachment between infants and their caregivers and provides speech-learning opportunities for infants. Researchers have found that infants of caregivers who used child-directed speech were better able to match objects and words than infants of caregivers who used less pitch variability when talking to them.

Most research on child-directed speech has been conducted on North American infants in middle-class families and less is known about child-directed speech in other cultures. It is important to remember that infants from different cultures learn to speak regardless of the use of child-directed speech.

Infant-Caregiver Interaction Patterns

Initially, babies are learning to attend to the world around them and respond to everything in the same way. Beginning at one month, babies and caregivers will engage in interaction sequences. At first, babies vocalize while gazing at caregivers. Caregivers then change their own behavior by increasing vocalizations and exaggerating their facial expressions and voice to maintain attention. Throughout these exchanges, caregivers must monitor the amount of stimulation based on the baby’s attention. If too much stimulation is provided, the baby may turn away. During interaction sequences, caregiver and baby turns are quick, lasting less than a second. The nature of caregivers’ stimulation determines how their babies respond. If caregivers vocalize, their babies will also vocalize. By thirteen weeks, babies can start social games by changing facial expression and moving. If adults do not take a turn, babies will turn away.

Sample Gosse, H. & Gotzke, C. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Interacting 0 - 3 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development