Babies do not start preferring mom until later than you think.
A misconception often entertained by rookie psychology students is that babies develop a very quick psychological connection to their mothers, perhaps within hours or days of birth.
The reality is, though, that newborn babies don’t have much of a clue what’s going on right after birth.
Although mother (and father) are likely to very quickly form close attachments to their offspring, from the baby’s perspective it takes longer, much longer.
Newborn babies do not begin to prefer mother, father or anyone at first.
When babies start preferring mom
In fact, it usually takes infants until they’re about 2 or 3 months old before they start to show a strong preference for mom, dad or anyone.
While a baby is primed for social interaction soon after birth, its abilities are pretty limited.
Here’s the timeline (Simpson, 1999):
- After 16 hours babies prefer the sound of human language to other noises (at least they start making rhythmic body movements which psychologists assume means they’re excited). But they don’t show any preference for particular voices.
- After 2 days babies can tell the difference between their mothers’ faces and that of a stranger, but they still appear to show no preference.
- After 3 days babies clearly prefer human voices, especially their mother’s.
- After 3-5 weeks babies become especially interested in faces, and particularly in their mother’s eyes.
Overall, though, the preference for the mother (or other caregiver) is usually fairly weak at first.
Real communication from the baby’s perspective probably doesn’t begin until they’re about 3 or 4 months old.
At around that time they start to initiate social contact with their mothers.
Only between about 3 and 7 months of age do babies start to show a strong preference or attachment for mothers, fathers or members of their own family in general.
Newborn preference for mom
This misconception that babies show a preference for mom very quickly may stem from the study of other animals.
Famously, ducks and geese will ‘imprint on’ and follow around the first thing they see after they hatch.
Konrad Lorenz, a pioneer in ethology (animal psychology) found that newly born geese would imprint on him, then try to follow him everywhere, as though he were their mother.
Babies are much more fickle and probably wouldn’t follow you anywhere, even if they could.
The misconception might also stem from a confusion with research from the 1970s that found there was a critical ‘sensitive period’ shortly after birth that was particularly important for bonding between mother and baby.
Again, this research refers to the mother’s bonding with the baby and not vice versa.
Also, as later researchers have pointed out, this so-called critical period turns out not to be that critical at all.
Attachment between mother, father or another caregiver and child can successfully be done at a later stage, just as well as early on.
→ This post is part of a series on 10 myths about the mind.
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This site is all about scientific research into how the mind works.
It’s mostly written by psychologist and author, Dr Jeremy Dean.
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