Facial expressions of emotion in mother-infant interaction

Hum Neurobiol. 1985;4(1):21-32.


Face movements of infants 2 months of age when they are interacting with their mothers give evidence both for innate representation of the mother as a partner in communication and for an emotional system that evaluates her expressions and regulates their interpersonal contact. Although the facial neuro-motor system is immature in infancy, it can generate many expressions that compare closely with those by which adults transmit emotions and control engagements and relationships. It also expresses rudiments of special motivation for speaking. Even newborns show clear evidence of organized facial expressions defining distinct communicative states that respond to maternal care. Emotional communication is multimodal; as infants gain in perceptuo-motor and cognitive powers, they both express and respond to simultaneous signals of affect in multiple channels of voice, gesture and postural change. Face expressions form but part of a stream of motor evidence of central affective state and its changes. Mothers present to infants a form of expressive activity (baby talk) that has clearly marked synchronous visible and audible features. The precocious expressive capacities and sensitivities of infants and maternal fostering of them would appear to be a human adaptation to facilitate development of observational learning and language. Developments in the first year expand the scope of communication and play without changing the fundamental emotional code by which infant and familiar caretakers construct and defend their special relationships.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Awareness
  • Child Development
  • Communication
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Facial Muscles
  • Female
  • Gestures
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Movement
  • Play and Playthings
  • Speech