In 1978, developmental psychologist Edward Tronick and his colleagues published a paper in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry that demonstrated the psychological importance of the earliest interactions between mothers and babies. The interactions of interest involved the playful, animated and reciprocal mirroring of each other’s facial expressions. Tronick’s experimental design was simple: A mother was asked to play naturally with her 6-month-old infant. The mother was instructed to suddenly make her facial expression flat and neutral; to remain completely still, for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity. Mothers were then told to resume normal play. The design came to be called the “still face paradigm.”
When mothers stopped their facial responses to their babies, when their faces were still, babies first anxiously strove to reconnect with their mothers. When the mothers’ faces remained neutral and still, the babies quickly showed ever-greater signs of confusion and distress, followed by a turning away from the mother, finally appearing sad and hopeless. When the mothers in the experiment were permitted to re-engage normally, their babies, after some initial protest, regained their positive affective tone and resumed their relational and imitative playfulness.
When a primary caretaker (the still-face experiments were primarily done with mothers, not fathers) fails to mirror a child’s attempts to connect and imitate, the child becomes confused and distressed, protests, and then gives up. Neurobiological research (summarized by child psychiatrist Bruce Perry and science writer Maia Szalavitz in their book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered), has powerfully demonstrated that in humans and other mammals, a caretaker’s attunement and engagement is necessary to foster security, self-regulation and empathy in the developing child. Parental empathy stimulates the growth of empathy in children. The infant brain is a social one and is ready to respond to an environment that is appropriately nurturing.