Young children benefit socially and intellectually the more their carers engage and respond to them. Recognising this, we can train nursery staff to be as responsive to the children in their care as possible. But a new study by Claire Vallotton raises an interesting and under-examined issue - what if there's something about some infants that leads their carers to engage with them more, thus giving them an advantage over their peers?
Vallotton filmed interactions between 18 student caregivers and 10 infants (aged between 4 and 19 months) at the Infant and Toddler programme at the UC Davis child development lab. Carers working here were taught "baby signing" - this is a gesture-based system for pre-verbal infants and adults to communicate with each other. For example, pointing the hands inwards, towards the mid-line, with fingers touching, is the sign for "more".
The student carers interacted with their designated child one-on-one, and importantly for this research, they occasionally switched which child was under their care, thus allowing Vallotton to see if some children consistently provoked more engagement from different carers.
There were some general effects: boys and older children provoked more attentiveness from their carers. But Vallotton's more novel finding was that infants who responded more to their carers' signs, either with signs of their own or with conventional gestures such as pointing or waving, tended to provoke more engagement and responsiveness from their carers.
This carer responsiveness was measured with a scale containing items such as "follows child's gaze" and "is at the child's physical level". Crucially, it was not an infant's total amount, or variety, of signing or gesturing that was related to more carer attentiveness. It was specifically an infant's amount of gestural response to the carer's own attempts at communication. In other words, the carers engaged a lot more with babies and toddlers who responded to them. This may sound obvious but it suggests the carers were biased, probably subconsciously. They were effectively making more effort with the infants who interacted with them more.
Obviously a major factor limiting the generalisability of this research is the use of baby-signing in this care group. However, Vallotton thinks her findings probably do apply more generally. "Caregivers [were] more responsive to infants who use more gestures, regardless of whether those gestures were conventional pointing or infant signs," she said. And the take-home message, she concluded, is that "infants' communicative behaviours affect caregiver responsiveness ... Increasing infants' use of gestures and signs may be a means to enhance responsiveness in caregiver-child interaction, a possibility that should be tested experimentally."
Vallotton, C. (2009). Do infants influence their quality of care? Infants’ communicative gestures predict caregivers’ responsiveness Infant Behavior and Development, 32 (4), 351-365 DOI: 10.1016/j.infbeh.2009.06.001