Juhl: Why are babies and toddlers so obsessed with your eyes?

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The eyes are the windows to the — OUCH!

Eyeballs are also a thing babies most love to poke at. It’s OK, shake it off, this is developmentally appropriate. If you ask Krista Byers-Heinlein about it, she’ll tell you it’s kind of neat.

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Byers-Heinlein is a professor in Concordia’s psychology department, an infant-development researcher and the university’s research chair in Bilingualism and Open Science.

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“It’s kind of neat, right?” she says. “It’s not something you have to teach your baby or a child. They will naturally be drawn to the eyes. There is a developmental pattern.”

Babies are born being able to detect faces, and eyes are one of the first signals they learn to read. They can interpret a very simple picture as being of something that is alive, as long as the picture includes eyes, Byers-Heinlein says. Given options, they prefer to look at things that have faces, especially at the eyes. It helps them understand what is happening in their world.

If eyes help us indicate what’s alive, that could explain why grownups do strange things like put eyelashes on their headlights or say “excuse me” when they push past a cleaning robot that has a face.

This is one reason toys and cartoon characters have such big, wide eyes. There’s recognition and attraction there.

“In young babies, face recognition isn’t as holistic as with adults,” she says. “We look at the whole face, but they look more at the pieces. By looking at the eyes, they can say, ‘Oh, is that mom, is that dad? Is it the babysitter? Is this someone I know or is it a stranger?’ If you mask the rest of the face and look at the eyes, you can recognize people. Babies do this very well.”

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They learn to take cues from others’ eyes so that when something happens, they look to their caregiver to determine whether they should be scared or interested. They notice when someone is looking at them rather than elsewhere, even before they understand what that means.

Between six and nine months old, they begin to engage in joint attention as they learn to follow another person’s gaze.

“If a caregiver is labelling something, a baby can orient toward that thing and it will tell them what their caregiver is talking about. If they are paying attention to the same thing at the same time, that’s super important for learning.”

This piece of the puzzle can be disrupted in some children with neurodevelopmental challenges, as when children with autism are not as attracted to or do not follow their caregiver’s eyes. Yet there is a developmental progression, and Byers-Heinlein cautions that not following a gaze right away is not diagnostic.

“If caregivers feel that there’s something off, or something atypical, definitely talking to their doctor is the best thing to do,” she says.

There’s a difference when children — especially moody toddlers — refuse to look you in the eye.

“That’s sort of a social withdrawal from someone, almost saying, ‘I don’t want to be engaged in social contact with you at this moment because I’m mad or I’m sick or I need a moment.’ It can be frustrating for parents, but I find it really impressive in the sense it is a sophisticated behaviour that they’re showing.”

“You know, as humans, we know these things about other humans,” Byers-Heinlein says, “even little tiny humans.”

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