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

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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

Even very young infants demonstrate interests and abilities that support interaction with those around them. In turn, caregivers promote interaction by treating infants’ behaviors as communicative. Listening and vocal skills develop within the framework of this interaction. Throughout the first three months, infants and caregivers are learning to interpret each other’s communication signals. As infants grow and develop, interactions become more predictable.

Infants’ Interests and Abilities that Support Interaction

Infants have visual preferences and eye gaze patterns in the first three months that support interaction. Interaction is also encouraged by infants’ responsiveness to people and objects. The development of intentionality is particularly critical in allowing young infants to interact with others.

Visual Preferences

Infants demonstrate visual preferences for objects with angles and curves and contrasts in light and dark (Apel & Masterson, 2001; Owens, 2001). The human face is consistent with infants’ visual preferences, having angles and curves, and areas of shadow when viewed from their perspective. In particular, infants prefer the eyes. This preference increases during the second month. By three months, infants have developed internal schemes for familiar persons and objects and the amount of attentiveness to the human face decreases.

Infants focus best on objects that are seven-and-a-half inches away (Owens, 2001). Within hours of birth, infants demonstrate the ability to follow objects that are at that distance. During feeding, the mother’s eyes are seven-and-a-half inches away from the infant.

Eye Gaze

Infants are able to engage in eye gaze soon after birth (Owens, 2001). By six weeks, the infants are able to focus and hold eye gaze with caregivers. By eight weeks, infants can visually follow caregiver’s movements. Infants are more likely to engage in reciprocal eye gazing when caregivers initiate. This reciprocal eye gaze resembles early conversational turn-taking (Owens 2001; Sachs, 2005). Eye gaze has been found to be important to the development of attachment between caregiver and infant (Sachs, 2005). In the first three months, both deictic gaze (i.e., looking at objects) and mutual gaze (i.e., looking at communication partner) are present.

In comparison to exchanges with other adults, when looking at their infants, caregivers will maintain eye gaze for longer periods of time (Owens, 2001). During play interactions, eye gaze occurs 70% of the time. Caregivers also monitor the direction of their infants’ eye gaze and interpret it as a sign of interest and attention (Owens, 2001). Caregivers will point and talk about the object that their infants appear to be gazing at.

Interest in People

Infants exhibit excitement upon sighting objects and people in the first month (Owens, 2001). By two months, infants will react to an object or person by arching, turning, twisting, and kicking. This responsiveness may persist for 20 minutes. By three months, infants exhibit person- or object-specific behaviors. For example, infants may begin sucking upon sighting the caregiver responsible for feeding.

Facial Expressions

Smiling is noted soon after birth. Initially, these smiles are reactions of the infant to their own internal state (Apel & Masterson, 2001). By three weeks, infants smile in response to external stimuli such as objects and people. Smiling at this stage may be accompanied by whole body movements and vocalizations (Owens, 2001). At three months, infants smile less at objects and more at people. Smiles at this stage also occur in response to high-pitched voices, eye gaze, and tickling. These smiles are more social and broader than earlier smiles.

Due to the high degree of maturity of the facial neuromuscular system, infants are able to exhibit a wide range of facial expressions (Owens, 2001). These expressions have recognizable patterns. “For example, for the “cry face”, the face sobers, then the brows knit, and a frown begins. The cheeks then become flushed, the lower lip quivers, and the eyes partially close. The lips pull back as the infant opens her mouth, then turns down the corners. Initial fussing is followed by catches of breath” (Owens, 1992, p. 172).


Infants will imitate hand movements, tongue protrusions and mouth opening within a week of birth (Owens, 2001). Although these “imitations” are reflexive in nature, caregivers often treat them as social and communicative. By one month, infants’ sounds may emulate the pitch and duration of their caregivers (Owens, 2001).

Search and Recognition Behaviors

Caregivers give high signal value to infant head movements (Owens, 2001). Infants turn their heads to view human faces. Upon hearing a voice, search and recognition behaviors are observed. Recognition behaviors include widening of the eyes, broadening of the face, and tilting the head towards the sound source (Owens, 2001). This pattern of behaviors occurs exclusively in response to the human voice.


By three months, infants will respond to the vocalizations of caregivers with vocalizations of their own (Owens, 2001; Sachs, 2005). During this turn-taking, infants’ vocalizations are syllabic rather than isolated vowel sounds and infants will wait for the caregiver’s response to their vocalization before taking another turn. Vocalizations may be accompanied by pointing, which may be a precursor to the development of gestures.

Developing Intentionality

Infants need to develop intentionality in order to have a role in interactions (Owens, 2001). Intentionality can be described as an awareness of self. Crying aids in the development of intentionality, as infants learn that when they cry the caregiver will respond. Once this pattern is learned, infants start to anticipate their caregiver’s response and will pause after an initial cry, as if waiting for the caregiver’s response. Caregivers further foster the development of intentionality by behaving as if infants’ vocalizations or movements have meaning and serve as a turn in the “conversation” between infants and caregivers (Sachs, 2005).

Caregivers’ Support for Interaction

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

Awareness of Infants’ Internal States

Caregivers’ behaviors are affected by their infant’s state of wakefulness. Within days of birth, caregivers learn to synchronize their behavior with their infants (Owens, 2001). In turn, infants must move from the individualized synchrony developed in utero to that of mutual synchrony with caregivers. Over time, infant’s sleep-awake patterns become increasingly predictable and infant and caregiver develop a shared series of behaviors during awake periods.

To maintain an optimal state of wakefulness, caregivers hold their infants closely and vocalize (Owens, 2001). By manipulating these behaviors, caregivers can affect their infant’s state and either increase or decrease wakefulness. Infants as young as six weeks can signal their readiness to interact by modifying their state of alertness. Communication between infants and caregivers is reinforced by the increasing clarity of infants’ signals and appropriate responding of caregivers.

Behaviors that Provide a Foundation for Interaction

Four caregiver behaviors have been described as providing a foundation for interaction with infants: preparatory activities, state-setting activities, communication framework maintenance, and infant-like action modifications (Owens, 2001). Preparatory activities include those actions completed to reduce the physical discomfort of infants, such as feeding or calming the upset infant. State-setting activities serve to alter the environment to focus infants’ attention on caregivers, and may include changing their infants’ position to face them and manipulating vocal pitch. Initially, these activities are face-to-face. At four- to six-weeks, caregivers may introduce objects by bringing them into their infant’s field of view or following their sight line. In order to better focus infants on the object, caregivers will shake the object and vocalize using their infant’s name frequently. These behaviors are repeated with each successive introduction of an object, thereby developing a framework for interaction. These behaviors also facilitate the development of joint attention. Joint attention occurs “when two people are focused on, or observing, the same object, person or event” (Apel & Masterson, 2001; p.13). Joint attention develops gradually in infants.

Communication framework maintenance behaviors provide timing markers to infants and are accomplished by modulating speech and rhythmically patting, rocking or tapping. Infant-like action modifications include baby talk, prolonged gaze, exaggerated facial expressions, body positioning, and imitating infants’ movements. These behaviors occur regardless of a caregiver’s experience with infants.

Using Child-Directed Speech

Child-directed or infant-directed speech has higher, more variable pitch and exaggerated stress compared to adult-directed speech (Sachs, 2005). An example would be a grandmother who says “Well, Helloooo there, little Cuuutie PIE” to her granddaughter in a high-pitched, sing-song voice. These prosodic features are found in child-directed speech across different language communities. Child-directed speech may help hold infants’ attention, thereby helping build emotional bonds between infants and their caregivers, as well as providing opportunities for infants to process and comprehend some aspects of speech (Sachs, 2005). Caregivers using child-directed speech have been found to pronounce object labels more distinctly with exaggerated stress and higher, more variable pitch, which may facilitate word learning (Sachs, 2005). An example would be a mother who says to her infant son, “Oh, a BEAR,” making her voice higher and louder to emphasize the object’s name. Infants of caregivers who used these features were found to have better associative learning of words than infants of caregivers who had less pitch variability.

Most research on child-directed speech has been conducted on American infants in middle-class families and little is known about child-directed speech in other cultures. As there is variability in parenting techniques across different cultures and infants learn to speak regardless of the use of child-directed speech, information on the effects of child-directed speech must be interpreted with respect to the culture in which it was studied

Infant-Caregiver Interaction Patterns

Initially, infants are learning to attend to and discriminate stimuli and respond to these stimuli with undifferentiated behaviors (Owens, 2001). Beginning at one month, infants and caregivers will engage in interaction sequences in which infants vocalize while gazing at the caregiver. Caregivers, in turn, will modify their behavior by increasing vocalizations and exaggerating facial expressions and voice to maintain attention. Throughout these exchanges, caregivers must modulate the amount of stimulation based on the infant’s attention. If too much stimulation is provided, the infant may turn away. During interaction sequences, infant and caregiver turns are quick, lasting less than a second. The nature of caregivers’ stimulation determines how their infants respond. If caregivers vocalize, their infants will also vocalize. By thirteen weeks, infants initiate social games by changing facial expression and moving. If these behaviors are not reciprocated, infants will turn away.

Gotzke, C. & Sample Gosse, H. (2007). Research Review: 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