Somewhere around 10 months of age, babies begin watching their parents’ eyes, following the direction of their gaze so that they can look at the same things.
It goes like this: Baby looks into mother’s eyes, mother looks at the kitty cat, so baby follows her gaze until they’re both looking at the kitty cat together.
That’s long been considered an essential skill for later social and intellectual development — and it’s one of the things doctors check for when diagnosing autism. But it has been unclear how the ability is linked to everything else unfolding in a young child’s brain.
Now researchers at the University of Washington are beginning to connect the dots between gaze-following at 10 months of age and skills that emerge later such as language and the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective.
In a recent study, Rechele Brooks and Andrew Meltzoff of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences followed a group of 19 children as they grew from infants to preschool age.
They discovered that children who were better at gaze-following as babies (10.5 months old) used more words that describe what’s going on inside their minds when they were toddlers (2.5 years old). And the toddlers who had used more words to describe thoughts, feelings and desires were better at discerning what others were thinking and feeling when they become preschoolers (4.5 years old).
The study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, shows significant associations between gaze-following and later skills, but it wasn’t designed to prove cause and effect.
Gaze-following emerges at around 10 months of age.
“Babies will tune in to what we’re looking at,” Brooks said. “That’s right when we think their understanding of eye gaze is emerging, that they actually wonder, ‘Where are your eyes looking?’ ”
She describes a parent’s gaze as a “social flashlight” that helps babies pay attention to interesting things in their world.
Brooks and Meltzoff found that the babies who were better at gaze-following used more words about their mental state, such as “think” and “pretend” as well as words describing emotions like “happy” and “sad.”
That suggests that there’s more to learning new words than just hearing them spoken.
“We have lots of work out there showing that language is learned when you’re interacting with another person,” she said. “What’s special about people? Well, we do things when we are interacting with you. We look at things, we name things. It’s a package deal.”
As for seeing the world from another’s perspective, toddlers who knew more “mental state” words did better as preschoolers on a series of little stories that test how well they discern what another person would know, think or feel.
For example, in one story, a little boy puts a penny in a container and goes out to play. A little girl moves the penny into a different container. When the little boy comes back inside, where will he look for his penny?
Younger children will say that he’ll look in the new place, but preschool age children generally understand that because the boy didn’t see the girl move the penny, he’ll look in the original place. That insight marks an important milestone in a child’s growth.
What should parents take away from this research?
When children share attention with their parents — whether it’s reading a book together or walking in the park and commenting on what they see — they’re learning about the outside world. But they’re also learning about the world within their own minds and the minds of others.
“All those things, those little building blocks, matter,” Brooks said. “We need to take the time to have those moments.”