Thursday, July 28, 2011

Babies’ Emotional Development: Social Referencing Part I.

Have you noticed when you take your baby to a new place or into a crowd of unfamiliar faces that she spends a lot of time looking at your face as she starts to explore her surroundings? By the time babies can move away from their parents (when crawling is well established around 8 or 9 months), exploration takes on a whole new meaning. As babies enter the world on their own, rather than in mom or dad’s arms, they have more opportunities to get into trouble. Fortunately, at the same time, they start to rely more on their caregivers’ cues (your facial expressions, body language and tone of voice) to determine which games, people, or objects will interest them and which should be avoided. Developmental scientists call this “social referencing” and it is a powerful tool to keep babies safe. In this post, we’ll share some details about this all important process.

Caregivers as Guides

The term “social referencing” is used to describe the moments when babies learn how they should react to unfamiliar objects, people, or events by carefully watching their caregivers’ reactions to these things. The caregiver becomes the “reference” as the baby decides to try the swing or keep away from the barking dog. Most parents will smile and encourage their babies to try swings but pull their babies back with concerned or fearful facial expressions if their babies approach barking dogs. By watching their caregivers, babies can learn what is safe or appropriate and what is not. Babies also gradually learn how best to behave in their specific environments (urban, rural, cold, hot, etc.) and culture (i.e., learning rules and customs). Overall, it’s a great system!

Negative vs. Positive Social Referencing

Scientists have found that caregivers' negative reactions seem to make a more powerful impact on babies than positive ones. This makes sense in that we are more likely to react quickly and dramatically when a baby reaches for an open oven door given that it is very important that the baby learns not to touch that door. Your efforts to get your baby to smile at grandma by using positive facial expressions and encouraging words may not get a strong and immediate response from your baby but consistency is important for your baby’s learning. You might find that your baby looks back at you whenever she sees grandma to make sure that your signals are still positive, at least until grandma becomes so familiar that the quick check is no longer necessary.

Social Referencing and Meal Time

Once you understand social referencing, you can really see how it may be an important part of mealtime when babies are given new foods. Parents all over the world instinctively tell their babies “yummy” (in different languages) and pretend to eat and like mushy baby peas. When you show positive reactions to foods, your baby learns which foods to try. Your negative reactions show baby which foods to avoid. Just keep in mind that the positive reactions don’t work as powerfully as the negative ones. Getting your older infant and toddler to try new foods may take several tries even when you serve them with a big smile and a look of excitement on your face. Alternatively, a strong negative reaction (even an unintended one, say, if you taste a food that is too hot) may stay with your baby for a long time.

Next time: We’ll share how social referencing differs depending on whether the reference is mom or dad.


1. Hirshberg LM, Svejda M. When infants look to their parents: I. Infants’ social referencing of mothers compared to fathers. Child Dev 1990; 61: 1175-86.

2. Mumme D, Fernald A, Herrera C. Infants’ responses to facial and vocal emotional signals in a social referencing paradigm. Child Dev 1996; 67: 3219-37.

3. Berger KS. The Developing Person. New York, Worth Publishers, 2003.

4. Carver LJ, Vaccaro BG. 12-month-old infants allocate increased neural resources to stimuli associated with negative adult emotion. Dev Psychol. 2007 Jan;43(1):54-69.

5. Vaish A, Striano T.Is visual reference necessary? Contributions of facial versus vocal cues in 12-month-olds' social referencing behavior. Dev Sci. 2004 Jun;7(3):261-9.

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