When do children start reading facial expressions?

Most of us have stuck out our tongue at a baby or child and watched them do the same back to us. Any guess at how young this mimicking skill is developed? Can they do it at 1 year of age? 1 month? 1 day?

Born ready

The answer is 9 seconds. Just 9 seconds after birth a baby can already copy simple facial expressions. Interestingly, at birth a baby can see things that are about 8-15 inches (20-38 cm) away from them. This is about the distance from the baby’s face to the face of the person holding the baby. Babies can also distinguish between human faces and nonhuman faces from birth.

So why are babies born primed to see human faces?

Ready to learn

Children are little scientists. They learn about the world and acceptable behaviour through watching their caregiver’s reactions. Their safety and survival depend on this crucial skill of reading facial expressions.
As children get older, the need to read faces remains. You may be able to think of many situations where misreading faces can get a child in trouble or lead to bullying, while a strong understanding of faces could help a child negotiate their way out of a tricky situation.
This skill, together with a few others, is called emotional intelligence. Research shows that almost all children who are doing poorly in school are missing an aspect of emotional intelligence. (Don’t worry, those other skills will be covered later in the program).

Seeing facial expressions isn’t easy

Some people are naturally better at observing and recognizing facial expressions than others. But like every topic in our program, this is a skill that can be taught! Tomorrow we will help you test your own skills in reading faces.
Thanks for reading this email, and thanks for being a conscientious parent / grandparent / aunty / uncle / caregiver!