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Analysis of Babies' Expressions May Help Children at Risk of Developmental Disorders

Update Date: Jan 09, 2013 07:58 AM EST

When children are very small, even at the stage of their infancy, parents and babies communicate with each other through smiles, laugh and cooing at each other. However, scientists have questions as to how this kind of communication or interaction helps or effects the development of babies.

"Parents tend to put a lot of emotional energy into these interactions," says University of Miami psychology professor Daniel Messinger. "And, the job of the baby is to do whatever they want, and they take that job very seriously."

"We believe that through interacting, babies learn early social rules, such as when to take turns with their vocalizations, when to smile at the same time," says Messinger. "It's by smiling at the same time as their mothers, the baby responding to the mother and the mother responding to the baby, that babies develop a sense of shared social emotion."

"This is a very interdisciplinary team, including developmental scientists, machine vision experts, and face perception researchers," notes Peter Vishton, program director for Developmental and Learning Sciences in NSF's Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, according to Medical Xpress.

"The researchers are enhancing our understanding of social interaction during infancy and at the same time, developing tools that may transform how many other questions about early development are addressed."

For the experiment conducted at the University of Miami's Early Play and Development Lab, experimenters have babies secured in a special seat, so that they can get a good view of their parent and also move both their arms and legs freely. The babies are tested first at four months and then again when they turn 1-year-old. For the evaluation, researchers have set up several cameras recording the structured play time, the report said.

"They play. Then, after two minutes, the mom will stop responding to the baby. We want to see what the baby does. How the baby either chooses to try to re-engage the mom, or maybe uses that time to look away and disengage, and then, start playing again," explains Messinger.

Later, the researchers analyze the videos with the help of a software program which measures the facial movements of both the baby and the parent.

"So, we are actually automatically registering and tracking the movements of the babies' and moms' faces, as they interact in time," continues Messinger.

"The baby is seeing the mom move her face and listening to what she is saying moment by moment, and this technology really lets us get at those moment-to-moment changes, and how mom is expressing smiles and joy, and engaging with the infant, and how the infant is responding to the mom."

The most important thing is to use these measurements in better understanding how interaction occurs and how babies learn early social rules.

"One of the things we found is that when a baby looks away from the parent, it just means they are interested in other things, it doesn't mean they are less interested in the parent. It just means they need to look around and see what else is going on," says Messinger.

Apart from studying child development, Messinger and his team are also working with children who are at a high risk of developmental disorders.

"We have looked at babies who are at high risk for autism spectrum disorders in this lab, and these are kids who have an older brother or sister who has a diagnosed autism spectrum disorder," says Messinger.

"The younger siblings are at higher risk. Almost one in five of them will themselves develop an autism spectrum disorder, and that finding came out of the result of studies like our own and those of our collaborators and other investigators following up with these kids. We have increasing evidence that early intervention works with autism spectrum disorders," he says.

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