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Mirror Neurons: How Infants Learn through Observation & Interaction

Apr 01, 2021    |   Infant & Toddler Learning

The special, daily interactions between infants and their caregivers makes working with infants particularly rewarding. Infants develop in the context of their relationships, learning from observation and interaction. We see this when we smile and a baby smiles back, or when we make a sound and an infant tries to imitate it. Not only are these interactions special bonding moments, but they also provide critical opportunities for infant learning and brain development.

An Introduction to Mirror Neurons

We know that most of the connections between neurons, the basic working units of the brain, take place between birth and aged three.  Mirror neurons are a particular class of neuron that enables motor activity. They are also activated when we observe the same type of motor action performed by another person, and in this way they help us to observe and imitate behavior.

In an article for Brains Potential, Diana Osipsov, a licensed social worker and behavioral therapist who specializes in infant and early childhood development, explains the important contribution mirror neurons make to infant learning, such as “when a young child sees a primary caregiver smiling, their mirror neurons tell them to smile back, and with incredible precision! And so a dance begins to take place between a child and a parent in which the child mimics what he or she sees and experiences. Through this back-and-forth interaction, the child begins to learn patterns of behavior, communication, and the experience of feelings.” During these interactions, infants and caregivers enjoy playing, laughing, and sharing experiences that foster the baby’s brain development.

To learn more about how imitation develops, to watch the video below of an interview with Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, a psychologist and expert on infant and child development. In the video, he talks about his work, which focuses on how infants learn through observation and imitation.

Developmental Implications

From birth, infants are born as social beings, looking to their caregivers for comfort and interaction. An article in Psychological Science shares that “Babies can imitate behavior two to three weeks after they’re born…In the first months and years of life, babies realize that other people are like them…Over time, babies learn that they can act with intent and variety. They experience the ability to perform an action differently from the person they are imitating. Eventually they realize internal states, such as desire; further down the line they develop empathy.”

This means that even during the earliest weeks of life, infants are learning foundational social-emotional skills from their caregivers, such as how to communicate, express needs, and share in emotions. These experiences become the foundation for children’s ongoing development of social and relationship-building skills.

Supporting Children in Your Care

When caregivers engage in back and forth exchanges with infants, they are fueling infant learning! Child development and education expert, Alice Maclaine explains:

“The way that a baby develops socially is very much dependent on how they are responded to. If you are receptive and spend time talking to and copying each other, your baby will learn to be more animated. If he is rewarded with a smile and a clap from you, then he will be more likely to use the same behaviour again. Each time he repeats and copies your actions and noises he is laying down neural pathways. This is why repetition, copying, and imitation are so crucial to your baby’s development.”

Playing simple games with infants will provide opportunities for them to try new skills, such as…

  • rolling a ball on the ground and encouraging the child to roll it back towards you

  • taking turns copying gestures and facial expressions, such as clapping, sticking out your tongue, blowing kisses, or waving

  • for toddlers or older infants who are more mobile, singing songs with simple gestures for them to copy, such as “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”

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