Understanding children: Babies being heard
Understanding children: Babies being heard

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Understanding children: Babies being heard

3 Watching babies

In the next activity you will be introduced to some other babies, all about six months old or younger, who with their mothers are demonstrating some of the things you have read about in the previous section.

Watching babies is a way of getting to know them and what they can do. You can learn a great deal about them by ‘standing back’ and looking. You can do this with babies you know, but here you will be able to watch a video recording. Baby watching – or observation – can help the ideas that you read about babies come alive. It can help you see a wider range of babies than you might do otherwise, and therefore gain understanding of how different they can be.

Activity 4: Video watch

Timing: 1 hour 0 minutes

For this activity you will watch a video which has a number of short clips of young babies. They are all with their mothers, but babies are just as able to relate to other adults and older children they are close to.

If you can find someone else to share this activity with – a colleague, friend or adult or child family member – it will allow you to share what you found and compare notes. You don't have to meet up; talking on the telephone or by email can be effective too.

As you watch the video clip try to identify and record the facial and body expressions that show how the babies are feeling. You can use the grid provided in Table 1 to record your observations (we have provided a PDF version for you to download and print). Put a mark in the correct box for each expression noticed. We have filled in the table for James as an example. You will probably need to watch the video clip several times to catch everything the babies do.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
Skip transcript: Video 1

Transcript: Video 1

Expert 1
The behavior of the baby is exceedingly complex it is inconceivable that that patterning has been learnt or trained. The real difference between this and any learning theory is the idea that there is an inborn capacity to communicate as a human being.
Voice over
What about the lovely smile then?
Expert 1
The smile itself is a kind of behavior that can't have any effect on the world… except through someone else perceiving her. It does express feeling. So babies are expressing the same kinds of feeling as the mother who reflects the affections and smiles back at the baby, but it is important to realise that its only part of the whole complex of body behavior of the mother.
The quality of her voice, the gentleness and softness of it expresses the same feelings in fact you can actually hear a smile in the voice, because it changes the physical quality of the sound.
Voice over
Language skills begin to develop in some of the earliest exchanges with parents.
Detailed analysis of sequences like this has shown that the mother closely watches the baby and builds on the responses she sees.
It's clear that both mother and child are enjoying these exchanges. How important are they for language development?
Expert 2
If we watch a young baby for example sitting on mothers lap…we can see the pleasure that both of them gain from this interaction. The eye contact between them, the baby will gurgle for example the mother probably copies those gurgles or maybe copies the mouth shapes and the expression on the babies face they even begin in a very rudimentary way to take turns.
Voice over
Turn-taking games like ‘peek a boo' are widely found in Western culture. They are thought to give children valuable experience of being involved in an exchange which has many of the characteristics of conversation. Each person's turn depends on the preceding turn and there is a shared understanding of the direction and purpose of the game.
End transcript: Video 1
Video 1
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Table 1: Recording babies’ expressions of feeling

ExpressionSmile/laugh: happinessListen/watchExcitementAnticipation

View table 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

There is one more part to this activity. Look at the video clip again. For each baby, look for the times when she or he makes the first move in trying to get communication going. This can be by raising a hand, making mouth movements, or making a sound. Put an initial in Table 2 each time they do this, noting whether it's a hand movement (H), mouth movement (M), or with a sound (S). Again we have provided a PDF version of the table for you to download and print.

Table 2: Recording babies’ communication

BabyInitiates communication
JamesM, H


Did you find it easy to watch and write at the same time, or did you have to keep playing the clip over again? It can be hard to concentrate even on a clip that you can stop and start. Doing two or more things at once – watching, interpreting, maybe counting, then noting down – is quite a complex set of tasks. In real-life observation, there are also many other distractions.

Was it easy for you to identify the different facial or body expressions and to attach emotion to it? Certainly, happiness is quite easy to spot, but what about something like ‘anticipation’? Did you think that some babies showed more of one emotion than others?

We noticed how attentive James was, keeping his eyes continually on his mother's face. Alice is very vocal and communicative. Rebecca seemed to be anticipating the toy popping out and got quite excited while waiting. Sebastian makes eye contact and mouth movements to his mother, and David babbles away and initiates frequent conversations.

It was easy to see how the older babies initiated communication. David, for example, was quite vocal and Rebecca was very demonstrative, waving her arms and bouncing up and down. Sometimes it may not be clear that a baby is actually starting off communication, rather than responding to something an adult has started off with them. But did you notice how James, who was only 10 weeks old, raised both hands and made mouthing movements towards the beginning of the clip, and again raised his hand at the end? Although these kinds of movements could be thought of as largely uncontrolled, researchers have found them common and predictable enough to conclude that babies do initiate communication.

An area we didn't ask you to comment on, but is nevertheless important, is the conversations that babies have with their mothers – for example, what Alice's mother was saying when showing her the doll. This kind of talking – where there is exaggerated use of words and syllables and much repetition – is called ‘parentese’ by child psychologists. It is important in that it introduces babies to the patterns in their language and establishes familiar routines for them.

We hope that by watching the babies in the video clip you have seen just how good they are at interacting with adults, and how much they seem to enjoy doing this.


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