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Do newborn babies imitate adults? New study says 'no', rekindling long-standing debate

ABC News logo ABC News 13/05/2016 Anna Salleh

The infants were exposed to each gesture for 60 seconds during which time the researchers recorded the infants' response. © Getty Images The infants were exposed to each gesture for 60 seconds during which time the researchers recorded the infants' response. Websites and books aimed at new mothers and even textbooks tell us that babies are born imitators, but a new study published today in Current Biology supports the idea that it is a skill they have to learn — likely by us imitating them, rather than the other way around.

"When we interact with babies ... we want to bring them into our world," said senior author Professor Virginia Slaughter, a developmental psychologist at the University of Queensland.

"We imitate them, and when we imitate them, this stimulates them to behave.

"We continue to imitate their behaviour and this sets up a reciprocal interaction that looks like imitation and that ultimately becomes imitation but is driven by the parents or the adult's behaviour rather than the baby copying what somebody does perfectly from birth."

Researchers have long been divided over whether newborn babies can imitate adults — and while some studies have showed newborns imitate adults, others have not.

"We set out to settle the controversy," said Professor Slaughter, who said her study was the largest and the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.

Infant response to adult gestures tested

Professor Slaughter and her colleagues tested infant responses to a wide range of adult gestures at one, three, six and nine weeks of age.

Adults presented 106 infants with 11 different gestures including tongue poking, mouth opening, finger pointing, and happy and sad facial expressions, as well as sounds like "mmm" and "eee".

The infants were exposed to each gesture for 60 seconds during which time the researchers recorded the infants' response.

To guard against the infant becoming confused by each gesture they ensured it was quiet, alert and engaged before a new gesture was presented to them.

"To our surprise we did not find any evidence that babies imitated any of the gestures at any of the time points," Professor Slaughter said.

"Mouth opening, as well and happy and sad faces, all got the same amount of tongue poking response as did tongue poking itself," Professer Slaughter said.

The most common activity among newborns was tongue poking, which they found occurred in response to a number of gestures by the adult.

She said there was no doubt older infants could imitate adults, but her findings suggested that babies learn this skill.

For those who think this takes some of the magic out of having a child, Professor Slaughter disagreed.

"I think it's magical and wonderful that from the time babies are born they are interested in other people, and they are ready to learn about how they relate to others around them — in part, by learning to imitate," she said.

Professor Slaughter said the findings should come as encouraging news to parents who find their newborns do not imitate them.

She said this was certainly the case when she told one mother of a newborn about the research findings.

"She let out this massive sigh of relief and said: 'Oh thank God, I've been trying and trying to get my newborn baby to imitate. She wouldn't do it and I thought there must be something wrong with her'," Professor Slaughter said.

A 'game changer' - or not?

Developmental psychologist Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, of La Trobe University, said the paper was going to have major impacts on theory, research and teaching in the area of child development and conditions like autism.

"This is a game changer. It's very exciting," she said.

"None of the studies to date have had this many children or this many gestures included within a strong experimental paradigm."

She said the study was also the first longitudinal study to look at imitation in newborns.

However not all psychologists are convinced.

"This paper is far from having solved the controversy of neonatal imitation," said Dr Elizabeth A Simpson, an assistant professor in the University of Miami.

Dr Simpson said the study had "significant methodological shortcomings".

She said some of the modelled actions are actually rare or absent in newborns.

"If an infant is unable to produce a given action, then of course she will be unable to imitate it. This isn't a fair test," Dr Simpson said.

The authors also failed to give infants sufficient time to respond, she said.

"In many ways, the authors appear to have set up the infants to fail," she said.

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