Learning Expressions: What Infants Learn by Looking at Us

During one of my son’s early checkups, his doctor asked me if he smiles and laughs at home. I replied, “yes, all the time.” At the next checkup, she asked the same question. And then again at the next…until I started to wonder, why does she keep asking me this? What would it mean if he didn’t? Does she think I’m lying?

The next time she asked, the conversation went something like this…

Doctor: Does he smile and laugh?

Me: Yes, all the time. Out of curiosity, why do you always ask me that?

Doctor: He’s typically very somber here; so, I need to know if he smiles and laughs at home.

Me: Well, he’s a pandemic baby. He’s been around no one but myself and my husband since birth. He doesn’t go anywhere with the exception of this office, which isn’t often. He’s probably super confused by these masks, and nothing here is familiar.

Doctor: Right, that makes sense.

Then she told me something that really sparked my curiosity about the correlation between infant emotional development and facial expression. She said that doctors often smile at babies to see if they will smile back because children that smile do it because someone at home smiles at them.

At home, where he has been with me since he was born, my son smiles when I or my husband smile; if we laugh, he will even start laughing with us. He knows our faces. He recognizes our smiles. The lady in the white coat that he has only seen for 10 minutes a handful of times in his life is likely not very familiar to him.

After this, I started to think about my behavior. When my son, Zain, was about four or five months old, we started to notice that he watches us. When my husband and I spoke to each other, he would look back and forth, watching everything we did. Sometimes, he would just stare.

I started to think about how my reactions and tone of voice must have a major affect on him. How does he process this? If I’m upset, does he know? Then I decided to dig a little deeper…

learning expressions begins at birth

Studies have shown that newborns can distinguish between the face of their mother and the faces of others within hours or even minutes after being born. It’s likely they pair her voice, which they recognize from their in utero days, with her face. I was surprised to learn that it only takes a few days for them to tell the difference between expressions like happy, sad, angry, etc.

Roughly half way through the first year, infants can match emotions depicted through facial expression with its vocal equivalent. Has a child ever turned to look at you abruptly when you say something in a more assertive or angry tone? They are likely expecting a certain facial expression when they look at you. They recognize tonal changes and look for verification in physical expression.

By the age of five, children can typically read and process facial expressions with the same understanding as adults. How they pick this up so quickly is still unknown. There are theories that children are simply born with it; others say they just learn what they see all the time. 1

Why is learning expressions important for children?

Facial expressions become a vital part of their learning process starting as early as six months. As babies begin to explore, they run into obstacles that instinctively make them cautious. How do they weigh that caution? Typically, they look at mom and read her facial expression.

Zain is almost 10 months old. He’s not crawling, but he reaches for anything and everything in sight. He has fallen over and bumped his head a couple of times. It has always been very minor, and when he does, I try to smile and keep my tone calm. I’ve noticed that if I jump up and react with distress, so does he because he always looks for me first. My reaction directly influences his.

Of course, if it hurts, he still cries, but he gets over it much more quickly if I’m calm and smiling.

what does this mean for parents?

In truth, it means we have an even bigger responsibility than simply keeping our children alive. Our interactions with them in the first months and years of their lives play a vital role in forming who they become.

“The foundations for attention, perception, language abilities and social development are built in the first year of life.”

Lisa Scott, BOLD

To be honest, when I first read this I had flashbacks of every time I turned on Storybots and put Zain in the activity table so I could get something done. The “mom guilt” is always lurking around the corner, just waiting to undo all the hard work I’ve putting into feeling like I’m doing my best. Occasionally, I have to slap her back in her corner and keep on.

In reality, we all have lives and things that keep us busy. Two working parents is not at all uncommon here. Not having every waking moment to spend with your child is absolutely normal. To be honest, it’s necessary; we all need time for ourselves. What’s important is what we do with the time we have with our children.

Studies show…

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

I’m going to link a few articles from academic studies on the importance of those first few years. Parents living in the United States should make note of this and pressure their policymakers.

I certainly do not want to step on a soapbox, but the reality is that the U.S. does not properly care for new parents. Our standards for maternity and paternity leave are rudimentary and negligent at best. We pale in comparison to every other developed country because our policymakers do not consider the science behind these formative years.

If you’d like to learn more, check out this study from the National Library of Medicine. More related studies are linked below the abstract in that link.

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  1. The Conversation. “Face time: here’s how infants learn from facial expressions.”
  2. BOLD. “The importance of faces for infants’ learning.”

Fed is Best: A Personal Story

If you, as a parent, have spent any time on social media, you’ve heard “fed is best.” The phrase originated in response to “breast is best,” a movement designed to encourage new mom’s to ditch the formula and try breastfeeding.

Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash

“Breast is best,” was not meant to undermine mothers who choose to formula feed. It started in response to the decline in breastfeeding that peaked mid-1900s. Breast milk really is liquid gold and great for baby, but after years of formula feeding becoming increasingly popular, by the 1950s, breastfeeding had developed a stigma relating it to lower socio-economic status.

In recent years, medical professionals wanted to put breastfeeding back on the radar in a good way.

the fed is best foundation

A common misconception about “fed is best” is that it argues for formula as a perfect substitution for breast milk. In reality, the phrase was developed to address an issue that originated from the “breast is best” movement…the immense pressure it was putting on mothers to breastfeed, even when it wasn’t working for them.

The Fed is Best Foundation does not encourage women to chose formula over breast milk. What it does is offer support to all parents, whether they chose one or the other. The pressure to breastfeed has, in some cases, had adverse effects on both parent and child.

What happens when a new parent has been told that breast is best and formula cannot compare? Parents who take to social media for support are inundated with misinformation:

  • “don’t supplement with formula, the baby will get confused,”
  • “don’t let them give your baby a bottle, the baby will get confused,”
  • “don’t just pump, you won’t make enough milk…”

Shaming has become an unfortunate normal for new parents. The reality is that birthers are under a tremendous amount of pressure in an incredibly vulnerable state. The Fed is Best Foundation simply wants to bring awareness to the struggle and provide support.

Fed had to be best for me

I gave birth to my son in November 2020. They ask you if you plan to “breast or bottle feed,” and I had every intention to breastfeed. I spent hundreds of dollars on all the gear and mentally prepared myself for the journey. When I said “breast,” the nurses smiled and praised me. I read the ID card on my son’s bassinet….the box for breast was checked, and the nurse drew a heart next to it with a smiley face. They approved.

Within 36 hours after my son was born, three different lactation consultants came to my room at different times. My son wasn’t getting enough to eat. I was exhausted. I had labored for 32 hours, and within that time I developed preeclampsia with severe effects. I was on a magnesium drip for two days, which makes you feel like death.

Just moments after the birth, I lost one fourth of my body’s blood at once. I was holding the baby, trying to breastfeed for the first time, when my face went white and I started to lose consciousness. Fifteen minutes later I had a blood transfusion.

At the time I didn’t even realize how much my body had been through. When the consultant came in and said “we need to talk about supplementing with formula,” I honestly didn’t feel anything. She approached the conversation as if she was preparing for me to burst into a rage. She even looked surprised when I said “yeah, that’s fine.” I just wanted to make sure my kid was fed, and I couldn’t do it.

formula can sometimes be the only option

The first three weeks of my son’s life were extremely difficult for me. I pumped every two hours. I tried feeding him directly, but he would get frustrated and give up. I googled “can breast milk come in late” at least 10 times a day looking for reassuring answers.

I called my hospital and rented the strongest pump they had. I spoke with consultants on the phone, stayed hydrated, and ate every lactation cookie available. When my son was three weeks old, we were finally able to get an appointment with a doctor who had decades of experience as a lactation specialist.

She talked to me for a few minutes, took one look at my chest, and said:

“You have mammary hypoplasia. Basically, puberty failed you. You do not have enough milk ducts to produce the milk you need. That, coupled with the hemorrhage you experienced during birth, set up a perfect storm to stop you from producing milk. ”

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

In the first three weeks, I never pumped more than 1 mL/day. If you’re not aware…that’s basically nothing. In addition to the mammary hypoplasia, which is extremely rare by the way, the blood loss I experienced stopped me from producing what little I would have produced anyway. Milk production is all about blood, according to the doctor.

I never had a chance. My child is alive because of formula. Period.

Moral of the story is…

If you find yourself in the presence of someone pouring formula into a bottle, and you feel a little judgy, keep in mind that you don’t know that person’s story. The day the doctor told me I would never be able to breastfeed, I cried tears of sadness and relief simultaneously.

I no longer had to coach myself through self-loathing every time the bottle was empty after 30 minutes of pumping at two o’clock in the morning. I put it behind me, told myself I did everything I could, and stopped at Target to buy a couple of 36oz cans of Similac.

I went home and packed up the breastfeeding supplies and put them in the closet. I never looked back. My son is happy and healthy, and I’m grateful.

What’s important to remember is that I’ve scrolled through TikTok and seen mothers on there shaming other moms for formula feeding. I’ve heard it all:

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com
  • “Why would you give your baby formula when you have liquid gold that your body produced for your child?” “
  • “Honestly, it should be considered child abuse.” (Seriously, people say nonsense like that.)
  • “You’re selfish if you don’t breastfeed.”
  • “So lazy.”

First and foremost, it’s no one else’s business how you chose to feed your child as long as your child is fed. Second, I’d be willing to bet that the type of people that say these things have never heard of mammary hypoplasia.

I almost feel lucky that I was diagnosed when I was. I wish it had been sooner. I could have saved myself a lot of time spent feeling guilty and broken. I HATED trying to breastfeed, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Not everyone enjoys it. It doesn’t always come easily. Not every baby is naturally good at it.

With that said, the moral of the story is that it takes the same amount of energy to support someone as it does to tear them down, and it costs nothing to be nice. Parents out there abandoning the breastfeeding journey because it was hard or causing you mental distress…I get it. You’re doing great. Give yourself a break.

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