What Are Babies Looking For?

Have you ever spent time looking for the “perfect” toy for a baby? (Should I also say app?) Especially one that is super stimulating? Well, a study published last May provides some insight into what babies are looking for – and what they don’t want. 

Researchers at the University of Rochester used some very sophisticated equipment to give 7- and 8-month-olds a variety of visual stimuli to sort through. These stimuli were selected to range from very simple to very complex (if you are interested, you can read the study here as it was published online). Infants’ eye movements were tracked, so that the researchers could measure with precision how long they looked at an object – and exactly when they looked away from it. The idea was to see what level of complexity they most preferred.

What they found was that babies liked their information to be somewhere in the middle – not too simple, not too complex. The researchers invoked the “Goldilocks effect” as a way of describing the results (you know, not too this, not too that, but just right). When a visual event is too simple, they will seek out something a little more complex – and when something is too complex, they will search for something more simple.

Now, I’d love to say that we can use this principle to guide our toy / app  selection, but that take-home message is still a bit elusive (unless we could subject a toy to the algorithm used by the researchers). But I think there is a bigger take-home message about something that is guaranteed to provide endless “just right” stimulation for a baby – the human face. There’s so much going on there and it is constantly changing (eyes move, lips move, muscles change) and engaging. In a prior blog post I talked about a really nice study that showed how babies of different ages orient to different features of a face (click here if you haven’t read that) – for example, at 7 and 8 months they tend to focus on the eyes and mouth.

Putting these different studies together, babies seem extremely well equipped to find that “just right” level of information in the human face during interaction. This doesn’t suggest that buying toys/apps for babies is misguided. It does suggest, however, that the majority of a baby’s play time should be with people – that’s what they are looking for!

Mom and baby playing via Shutterstock.com 


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  1. [...] What are babies looking for? (Parents.com) [...]

  2. by Mary Lou B. Johnson

    On August 3, 2012 at 8:11 am

    What an engaging way to share with us that babies need and crave “face time” with their parents. It isn’t surprising that the 7-8 month olds that were studied and demonstrated that they were focused on the eyes and mouth of speakers are in the brief critical phase of life when they are gobbling up and storing information about how speech sounds of their language are made. As a speech-language pathologist, my vote is that parents and other loving adults provide as much face-to-face time with lots of engaged talking with their children during this incredible learning time from birth to preschool.

  3. by Stick Your Tongue Out At Your Newborn | Red-Hot Parenting

    On September 16, 2013 at 8:00 am

    [...] with the ability to search out exactly what that is – something researchers call the “Goldilocks effect” – as they can, for example, scan for just the right amount of information they need in [...]

  4. [...] should be vigilant about seeing how their baby reacts when eye contact is expected. The way a baby looks at the human face changes a lot over the first year in life – but the constant is that they spend a lot of time [...]

  5. by The Best Toy For Baby: Your Face | Red-Hot Parenting

    On December 23, 2013 at 11:16 am

    [...] out how interesting it is for a baby to look at the human face. Understand how much the way they look at faces changes in the first year and why your face is the [...]