Babies' Lack of Interest in Faces Linked to Callous Behavior in Toddlerhood

A baby’s preference for a human face, rather than an object, is connected to lower levels of insensitive and unemotional behaviors when the baby becomes a toddler, according to scientists at King’s College London, the University of Manchester, and the University of Liverpool.

Furthermore, the findings show that if a mother responds more sensitively to her baby during playtime, then the child is also less likely to exhibit callous unemotional behavior as a toddler.

Callous and unemotional behaviors are defined as having a lack of guilt and empathy, a reduced concern for other’s distress, and difficulties with understanding emotions.

Previously, callous unemotional traits have been associated with reduced attention to important social features such as other people’s faces and eyes. This study is the first to look at whether such a connection is present from the first few weeks of life.

The study, published in Biological Psychiatry, involved the evaluation of 213 infants at five weeks of age. The researchers watched whether the babies spent more time tracking a person’s face or if they preferred an inanimate object — in this case, a red ball.

The researchers found that the more time an infant spent watching a face instead of a ball, the fewer callous unemotional behaviors were reported by questionnaires when the children were two and a half years old.

“Callous and unemotional behaviors in children are known to be associated with an increased emotional burden on families as well as later criminality and antisocial behavior.

“This study takes us a step further in understanding the earliest origins of callous and unemotional behaviors,” said Dr. Rachael Bedford, a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the Biostatistics Department, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London.

“An important next step will be to seek replication of the findings before working towards developing early interventions,” said Bedford.

The findings are the latest from the Wirral Child Health and Development Study, an ongoing interdisciplinary investigation of the relationship between social and biological factors in the emotional and cognitive development of children.

The children of this study are still being followed to see whether face preference at five weeks of age can continue to predict callous unemotional behavior through middle childhood.

“While our findings are interesting, we don’t yet know how stable callous unemotional behaviors are. Our follow-up work will assess how these early indicators affect children in later life,” said Dr. Jonathan Hill of the University of Manchester.

Source: University of Manchester

Baby not looking at her mother photo by shutterstock.