Why Babies Look: Understanding Social Referencing
Toys built with an understanding of early child development aid social learning.
Posted March 24, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
By Maithri Sivaraman, Ph.D., and Tricia Skoler, Ph.D.
You may have heard that infants’ cries have different meanings like hunger, pain, startled, wet, and so on. Did you know that this is also the case with how a toddler looks towards their parents?
The looks that a toddler shares with a parent can have various meanings and expectations. It can be their way of saying, “Did you see what I saw?” Or asking “What is that thing?” Or a whole gamut of other things. Today, we’ll describe the meaning of one such look called social referencing.
What is social referencing?
Have you ever felt like your toddler sometimes looks towards you to decide how they should behave in a situation? What does your toddler do when faced with an ambiguous or unfamiliar event?
Say, for example, a toy dog that barks suddenly. A toddler typically looks towards their parent. They look for cues from the parent to determine how to respond to this unfamiliar event. If the parent smiles, then the toddler may approach this dog. But if the parent looks fearful or frowns, then the toddler avoids approaching the dog and may even move closer to the parent.
According to research published in the journal Infancy, social referencing typically develops at the end of the first year of a child’s life. The interesting thing is that at one year of age, much of the world is novel to the child. What helps toddlers navigate the novel, complex world? Social referencing is one tool that helps them interact with their environment—determine what is safe or unsafe, approachable or unapproachable. Research has suggested that social competencies that develop during these early interactions are the cornerstone of emotional development, and for advanced language and cognition.
I’ll be honest: It is not that toddlers stop before every unfamiliar situation for Mom or Dad to give them a thumbs up (how I wish). Infants develop and continue to build their social referencing skills during childhood. This is where toys come in.
Toys for practicing social referencing
All toys were not created equal. Some types of toys are better at promoting social engagement than others. I picked one of my favorite types of toys for practicing social referencing: robots.
A remote control dog, for example, performs several stunts, and provides great opportunities to practice social referencing under supervision. Research has shown that children as young as 10 months of age look more often towards an adult in the presence of such toys. The remote control affords unpredictability. The toy moves forward one minute and immediately crouches down in the next moment creating great opportunities for your toddler to look at you several times, share a laugh, and build on those early social competencies.
Another great thing about the toy is the touch activation. Touching the dog’s chin produces a sound and movement, which is perfect for young children before they can start using the remote control. It is also a great cause-and-effect play activity. If you thought robots were only for the older kids, think again.
Design matters. A well-designed robot is key. Designs with smooth surfaces, high-quality materials, built with an understanding of early child development promote robust and joyful social learning.
Kim, G., & Kwak, K. (2011). Uncertainty matters: Impact of stimulus ambiguity on infant social referencing. Infant and Child Development, 20(5), 449–463. https://doi.org/10.1002/icd.708
Salo, V. C., Rowe, M. L., & Reeb-Sutherland, B. (2018). Exploring Infant Gesture and Joint Attention as Related Constructs and as Predictors of Later Language. Infancy : the official journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, 23(3), 432–452. https://doi.org/10.1111/infa.12229
Striano, T., & Rochat, P. (2000). Emergence of selective social referencing in infancy. Infancy, 1(2), 253–264. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327078IN0102_