Eye Contact in Babies: Expert Advice

Eye Contact in Babies: Expert Advice

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When the eyes of parents and babies meet, something very special happens – an emotional connection is established.  Here’s some tips for encouraging eye contact with your baby.

"Hey, I know you!"

By Dr. Dana Erhard-Weiss

Eye gaze is one of the first milestones babies achieve, and it is an especially exciting one! It lets parents know that their baby finally “sees” them and that they’re important and recognized. Mutual gaze is a shared communicative experience between a parent and a baby that conveys information about a reciprocal interest and connection.

The importance of eye gaze

  • The developmental importance of eye gaze is both emotional and intellectual- it has special significance in early attachment and bonding. When baby sees her parents eyes and face, she starts making associations: between food and feeder, between voices and persons, between a smile and what it means to be happy or loved, etc. 
  • This developmental milestone is significant in helping children develop capacities to be calm and regulated, engage and relate to others, and initiate and respond to different types of communication. 
  • Later on, when babies are able to follow the caregiver’s gaze, infants can share important information with parents. This is an essential skill required to enjoy mutual play with caregiver and objects and is a central skill to the development of language and vocabulary. when both caregiver and baby are looking at the same object and the parent names or describes the object, the connection between a sight and a word is established. 

The development of eye gaze

Eye gaze develops in leaps and bounds when it comes to babies:

  • Within 7 hours after birth, infants take a remarkable interest in their mothers' faces and have been shown to imitate facial expressions made by caregivers.
  • Between 6-10 weeks, babies begin to direct their eyes more intentionally by looking directly at their caregiver and holding the gaze.
  • At around 3 months, babies can follow the movements of their caregivers as they move at a distance.
  • By 9-11 months, babies develop the ability to follow an adult's eye gaze. 

These advancements in baby’s eye gaze indicate that the infant’s neurological growth and ability to communicate are on track. 

How can you encourage eye contact with your baby?

  • Eye gaze is often very brief when it comes to babies. Don't expect a long and focused look.
  • You can’t force a baby to form eye contact, especially when baby is hungry, tired or upset. Encourage eye gaze when baby is content, calm and alert.
  • In the first few months of life, holding the baby at about 10-20 inches away from your face facilitates eye gaze and focus.
  • When your baby is staring directly at you, it is an opportunity to interact, smile, sing, and talk even if it feels awkward at first.
  • It is usually better to wait until your baby looks at you and then establish communication.
  • Mutual gaze is especially beneficial for promoting attachment when accompanied with touch and/or voice.
  • When your baby gazes at you or at an object, pointing at the object and naming it encourages language development.
  • The human face is a strong visual stimulus – babies sometimes just need a break. When babies turn their heads away it is not a sign of disinterest but rather a babyish way of saying “I’ve had enough for now, I need some time to process it all”. It is important to respect your baby’s sensory capacity. Some babies are more sensitive to sensory stimulation and might avoid eye contact while others need intense stimulation in order to focus. 

Dana Erhard-Weiss, Ph.D. *Meltzoff, A. N., & Brooks, R. (2007). Eyes wide shut: The importance of eyes in infant gaze following and understanding other minds. In R. Flom, K. Lee, & D. Muir (Eds.), Gaze following: Its development and significance (pp. 217-241). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Any advice and information provided in this website is given as suggestions only and should not be taken as a professional medical diagnosis or opinion. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent.

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