Baby Rituals

How we use ritual to draw infants into the adult social world

Posted Jun 19, 2014

Hardly seems like the stuff of ritual–but it is. Upon close examination, the earliest social exchanges between infants and moms can be understood as ritualized interactions. They possess all the important features used as markers of ritualized behavior: They are attention-getting, rule-governed, invariantly sequenced, formalized, repetitious social exchanges.

Early “turn taking” bouts between infants and moms are typically initiated by some attention-getting signal, such as a “call” or imitative act on the part of the infant or mom (e.g., baby smiles and mom smiles in replay or vice-versa). They involve repetitive, formalized vocalizations and gestures. This means that gestures and vocalizations are often exaggerated, stylized, and repeated. Think of the motherese (more formally called “infant directed speech”) that adults naturally fall into when interacting with babies–“such a preeeetty baaaaabeee, preeeetty baaaabeee.” The interactions follow a fairly strict rule-governed sequence, where each participant is expected to “take turns.” Indeed, the rules of mother-infant interactions so closely resemble those of adult verbal dialogue that they have been referred to as “proto-conversations.”

Studies have shown that if the rules of turn-taking are violated, infants not only detect the violation, they are distressed by it. For example, in the famous “still-face” studies, after mom and infant have established a turn-taking interaction, mom unexpectedly assumes a non-responsive emotionally blank facial expression. The effect this has on the infant is dramatic. The infant’s mood quickly switches from spirited chattiness to sober unease. The infant will often look away, then attempt to reengage mom with a wary smile. When these attempts fail, the infant increasingly withdraws, showing mounting agitation the longer the still face remains.

Other studies have found that it is not just mom’s unresponsiveness that disturbs the infant–it’s that mom is not following the rules of turn-taking. This has been demonstrated in studies using video mediated interactions between mothers and infants. In these studies, mothers and infants see and hear each other on live video displays. However, after a turn-taking interaction between them is established, a delay is introduced such that the mother’s gestures and vocalizations are no longer timed properly with those of her infant. Though the mothers are warm and responsive, their behaviors aren’t coordinated with their infants–the “turn taking” is disrupted. Infants as young as two months show signs of confusion and distress–they seem to be wondering why mom isn't following the rules.

How successfully these mom-infant interactions unfold can have important effects on child development. Infants whose moms more successfully maintain and encourage positive turn-taking interactions appear to have greater social sensitivity and communicative skill. 

One reason why ritual can have such a powerful affect on us as adults is because we are so exquisitely sensitive to it from a very early age. Ritual is the means by which we are introduced and drawn deeper and deeper into the adult social world. Our ability to function effectively in that world is strongly influenced by the success of our early ritual initiation.

For more on baby rituals, see chapter four of my book.