Is My Baby Imitating Me? Study Questions Whether Newborns Actually Mimic People Around Them

It's a common question for new moms: Is my baby imitating me? For decades, most researchers have assumed that babies are born with an innate ability to mimic the actions of people around them — facial expressions, gestures, and so on. However, recent research from the University of Queensland in Australia indicates that this may not be the case. Rather than being born with it, evidence indicates that babies actually learn the ability over time.

As lead researcher Virginia Slaughter pointed out, many studies supporting this idea were conducted in the 1980s and '90s, and scientists tended to focus on a limited number of gestures for the baby to mimic, like poking out the tongue or opening the mouth. Although infants did tend to perform the same action more if they saw an adult doing it, that doesn't necessarily mean they were mimicking what they saw.

"If infants also increase their tongue protrusions when an adult models a happy face or finger pointing, then it's not a case of imitation, but probably excitement at seeing an adult do something interesting," Slaughter explained, according to Science Daily.

To rule out this possibility, researchers tested 106 infants at regular intervals during the first two months of their lives. At the beginning of each round of testing, they established a baseline of how often the infants opened their mouths and stuck out their tongues. Infants were then presented with an adult making one of 11 possible gestures, including pointing, making a happy face, and humming. (There's no word on what the babies thought of all this attention.)

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Finally, researchers measured the infant's activity one more time to see if the gestures had any effect. Here's where it gets interesting: Babies did tend to poke out their tongues more often after seeing an adult do so, but that was true of any gesture. In fact, the data indicated that babies were just as likely to make a different gesture as the same one, leading researchers to conclude that they aren't actually imitating anyone after all.

According to the authors of the study, this has important implications. We know that mimicry is important in child development, so if infants aren't born with the ability, they must learn it at some point during their first few months. Interestingly, there's evidence it might be the other way around; Slaughter noted that adults often mimic babies, which may play a role in their own ability to imitate.

More research is needed to establish any sort of causality, but the study's authors are already doing just that by extending their analysis into the first two years of a baby's life. On that note, I'll leave you with this video of a cute baby flipping out at the sight of his father's twin, because it's always relevant.

Stephen Ratpojanakul on YouTube

The most important takeaway here? Babies are the cutest — whether they're imitating us or not.

Images: Giu Vicente/Unsplash, Giphy