- In 1970, the Still Face experiment showed how a parent's visual reaction can impact a baby's emotional development.
- The Still Face experiment was done originally with mothers and infants but replicated with fathers, as well as toddlers.
- The research findings do not imply that short or occasional non-responsiveness is the same as prolonged inattention.
A good friend of mine approached me and shared how frustrated she was with her husband spending so much time on his iPhone. She felt that he wasn't responsive to their 18-month-old’s bids for his attention. She wanted to know how this could impact his development. The short answer: We don't know the answer, but we can pull upon the research that we do have to make informed decisions that are best for our families.
The Still Face Experiment
The single most important thing that your child needs at any stage in their development is your connection, presence, and affection. In 1970, Dr. Ed Tronick did the famous "still face" experiment. It showed how strong our need for connection is. The still face experience gives an insight into how a parent's reaction can impact the emotional development of a baby. Specifically, this experiment told us what happens when connection does not occur.
The study involved the baby and mother sitting face-to-face and playing. You see the mother engaging with her baby and the baby responding by smiling, making movements, and sounds to communicate. In the second part of this experiment, you see the mother engage in "still face" or a lack of responsiveness to her baby for two minutes. After two minutes, there is a repair, where the mother returns to normal by responding, playing, and smiling.
What psychologists learned in this classic study is how the baby's behavior changed based on their mother's reaction. You see a baby go from smiling and making sounds to appearing confused and attempting to connect by making sounds and movements. The baby looks around the room; she tries smiling, then pointing. As her mom continues to engage in the still face with no response, the baby continues to test other sounds and movements to get her attention. Then frustration sets in and the baby begins to cry and screech. Once the mother's attention returns, the baby shows a clear sign of relief and goes back to smiling.
Researchers also have repeated this study using the fathers where the babies had the same responses. It has also been replicated with toddlers and recorded similar findings.
The still face is an example of the common everyday occurrences which all parents experience when they need to finish cooking dinner or attend to another child. Having a non-responsive parent is not a problem if it occurs in short doses. I explained to my friend that I'd encourage her and her husband to at least acknowledge (e.g. "I hear you, I see you, I will be right there") the bid of attention even if for some reason, he couldn't attend to their child right away.
Lessons for Parents About Attentiveness
Here is my takeaway:
Don't overgeneralize the research findings and feel that you need to respond and engage 100% of the time with your toddler. That is just not realistic and can create caregiver guilt. Short, occasional non-responsiveness is not the same as consistent, prolonged inattention or lack of responsiveness to your child.
In situations where you can't attend to your baby or toddler right away and you know they are safe, acknowledge, respond, and let them know you will be right there.
Create opportunities daily to engage without distraction with your child. They deserve to have all of you, with no phone in hand.
When a child is in distress, pause and say "my affection, my presence, my time." This mantra reminds you that they need connection.
When a child is joyfully playing, pause and offer your affection, your presence, your time.
Weinberg MK, Tronick EZ. Infant affective reactions to the resumption of maternal interaction after the still-face. Child Development. 1996;67:905–914.
Weinberg, M. K., Beeghly, M., Olson, K. L., & Tronick, E. (2008). A Still-face Paradigm for Young Children: 2½ Year-olds' Reactions to Maternal Unavailability during the Still-face. The journal of developmental processes, 3(1), 4–22.