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Tag Archives: motor development

Baby See, Baby Do (newborn)

**How newborns imitate others’ facial expressions**

Many studies have shown that imitation is an important social mechanism. But when are babies able to imitate others around them?  Are they born with any innate ability to engage in this social exchange? In a study that might sound familiar from Psych 101, Meltzoff and Moore (1977) systematically tested whether newborns who were 12-21 days old imitated facial expressions that they saw.


  • You!


Start by looking at the baby with a neutral “passive” face.  Then when the baby is looking, make one of the following gestures four times in about 15 seconds (see image from the original 1977 article). Resume a passive face and see how the baby responds.  Try all five gestures:

–       Lip protrusion

–       Mouth opening

–       Tongue protrusion

–       Sequential finger movement (opening and closing the hand by serially moving he fingers)

–       Head movement in a clockwise motion

meltzoff2 imitation

Notes & Observations

What did you observe? Did your child imitate any of the gestures?

Research Findings & Extension

The study showed that newborns did instinctively respond by consistently imitating the specific facial and manual gestures that they saw. A follow-up study showed the same response in infants only hours old!  This is remarkable because it shows imitation behavior far earlier than it was originally thought to start at 8-12 months. The authors explained the phenomenon as a result of the infant’s primitive ability to “represent human movement patterns they see and ones they perform using the same internal code” (Meltzoff & Moore, 1989, p. 961). This tendency does seem to fade by 2-3 months, possibly because babies can communicate more intentionally by that time.


Meltzoff, A.N. & Moore, M.K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198, 75-78.

Meltzoff, A.N., Moore, M.K. (1989). Imitation in newborn infants: Exploring the range of gestures imitated and the underlying mechanisms. Developmental Psychology, 25, 954–962.


Fitting In (18-24 months)

**How children make errors when judging the size of objects they interact with**

Have you ever seen a two-year-old trying to get his hands or feet into something way too small for him?  Not pretending, but seriously and persistently trying, say, to fit into a toy car that would be impossible to get into?  Well, you’re not alone.  Dr. Judy DeLoache and her colleagues noticed the same phenomenon in young toddlers and decided to study what they called “scale errors.” Because these occurrences are infrequently spotted in everyday life, they created a lab situation that would make children’s errors in judging the scale of objects more likely (of course, they still don’t always occur!).  Setting this one up at home would be a commitment, but the errors are really interesting to witness.


  • Large (appropriate for a child to actually get into) and small (not miniscule, about doll house-sized) versions of the same object.  For example, the original study used a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe ® car and a small toy version of it (which also had movable parts).  A chair, slide, or wagon could also be used.  The two objects should look as identical as possible.
  • A confederate


Have the child come into the room where the large object (and little else, if possible) is located and let him play with it as he normally would for 5-10 minutes. Then take the child out of the room and have your friend replace the large toy with the smaller replica, placing it in the same location and removing the large toy from the room. Do this without the child seeing and without mentioning anything about the change.

When you bring the child back into the room, do not comment on the change even if your child reacts.  Let him explore on his own, or if he is hesitant, perhaps suggest that he play with the toy.  Watch carefully to see if your child has a momentary lapse in understanding how to interact with the object.

Notes & Observations

What did you notice? How did your child react?  Did he try to perform any of the same actions with the small object as he did with the large object?

Take a look at some clips from the DeLoache lab of children making a scale error with the small objects:

Research Findings

DeLoache et al. (2004) found that 18 to 20 month-olds are most likely to make this kind of mistake. By 24 months, children hardly ever make these kinds of errors. Psychologists believe that when children display this sort of behavior, it indicates a time in their development when their action planning is misguided. In the case of this phenomenon, the children are thinking of the larger version of the object when they are planning how they will act on the smaller version.  Even if you can’t re-create the study, many people report children doing this spontaneously, so keep an eye out!


DeLoache, J.S., Uttal, D.H., & Rosengren, K. S. (2004).  Scale errors offer evidence for a perception-action dissociation early in life. Science, 304, 1047-1029.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t (10-12 months)

**How children make errors when searching for an object**

Do babies know that an object still exists after it’s no longer visible?  Can they find something that’s been hidden in plain sight?  These are some of the questions brought up by Piaget’s (1954) classic demonstration of the “A-not-B error.”  In this phenomenon, children make what is called a perseverative error where they continue to search for an object in location A even after it has been hidden in location B right in front of them!


  •  Two identical opaque containers placed on a piece of cardboard about 1.5 feet apart
  •  A small unfamiliar toy that can be hidden


Sit on the floor across from the child, who can be seated in someone’s lap to hold her until it is time to search. Place the two identical containers upside down on the cardboard, slightly out of the child’s reach.  Establish eye contact with the baby and get her attention, showing her the toy and telling her to “look here” as you hide it under one of the two containers, which is your location A.  You can shift your gaze between the object and location A as an indication of where it is hidden, but do not say where it is.  Now wait 4 seconds and then push the cardboard toward the child so that the containers are at an equal distance and observe where she first searches for the toy.  Do not provide feedback regardless of whether she chooses the right or wrong location.

Repeat this procedure hiding at location A 3 more times. Most infants should be able to accurately find the toy during these trials.  Now on the fifth trial, you will follow the same procedure, except that you will place the toy under the second container, location B.  Observe where the baby searches.  Repeat this for two more trials and see whether she continues to search in location A or changes to location B.

Notes & Observations

What did you observe? Did your child continue to search in location A even after you had switched to B?  How many times did she make the perseverative error?

Research Findings & Extension

Many researchers have found that babies between 10-12 months continue to search in location A even after they have watched the experimenter place the object in location B.  This error has been attributed to infants’ inability to stop themselves from searching in a place where they were rewarded with finding the toy or their inability to maintain the short-term memory of the new location.

However, Topal et al (2008) published a study suggesting that some of the source of the error comes from infants over-interpreting the communication signals given by the adult (such as eye contact and verbal attention-getting). They implemented a stripped-down procedure where the experimenter faced to the side and did not communicate with the child in any way but did everything else in terms of hiding the objects exactly the same way.  They found that the rate of the error was much less in this condition since it no longer seemed like the adult was trying to “teach” anything.  Try this version a few weeks later (with different containers and toy) and see if your infant makes fewer errors.  You can also try the procedure after 12 months and see if the error is no longer made at all.


Piaget, J., (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.

Topal, J., Gergely, G., Miklosi, A., Erdohegyi, A., & Csibra, G. (2008). Infants’ perseverative search errors are induced by pragmatic misinterpretation. Science, 321, 1831-1834.