This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Communicating with Newborns

Possibly the earliest and most primitive form of communication between mother and infant is based on odor. Michael Russell of the University of California did a series of studies that showed that babies only a month and a half old could distinguish the odor of breast pads worn by their mothers from those worn by nursing strangers.

What studies showed odor familiarity between mothers and babies?

Richard Porter and Jennifer Cernoch of Vanderbilt University found that breastfeeding babies preferred the odor of underarm pads from their mother to those from other nursing women. No such effect was found for odor-carrying pads from the fathers. Porter also showed in follow-up research that 16 of 20 mothers were able to distinguish the odor of clothing worn by their own children from that of other children. (McCarthy, 1986)

Normal babies communicate with their parents through body language at an early age. Researcher Daniel Stern , author of The First Relationship (1982), took high-speed movies of parents interacting with babies. When films were slowed down and viewed frame by frame, Stern found that tiny movements of the baby and the parents were synchronized (occurring at the same time or right after each other). For example, the mother would tilt her head; at that exact moment the baby would throw out an arm. Or the baby would smile and the mother would smile a few milliseconds later.

How do normal babies "communicate" with parents before they can talk?

Harvard pediatrician T. Barry Brazelton commented in an interview that mothers and babies who relate to each other this way are a joy to watch.

Every movement is geared to the other's. It's like the mating dance of swans. It's a distortion to say who is leading whom, both are so locked into their interaction. (Newman, 1977)

What special noises do adults use with babies?

People make certain sounds more often when playing with a baby. They speak in a high, melodic voice that is used only with babies (and recognized all around the world). They also "click" or go "tch tch" or make kissing noises to get a baby's attention.

What is some evidence that "clicking" sounds are special to babies?

Normal adults make these high-pitched sounds only when trying to communicate with a baby or someone they are treating like a baby. Researcher Elliott Blass found that newborn babies respond to these sounds. For example, when a click was used as a signal (conditional stimulus) in a classical conditioning procedure, babies showed evidence of conditioning more quickly than when other sounds were used.

When Blass consulted Arnold Gould, who is curator of mammals at the Smithsonian Institution, Gould told him that all mammals click to their young, that clicking is the primary mode of communication between mammals and their infants. "If you're a mammal, you click," Gould told Blass. (Kolata, 1987)


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