Maternal Infant Eye-to-Eye Gaze

Certainty Style Key

Certainty styling is being phased out topic by topic.

Hover over keys for definitions:
True   Likely   Speculative
Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
Relative Difference
MOCA Domain: 
MOCA Topic Authors: 

Visual following and visual fixation are among the earliest intentional behaviors produced by human infants, and the most salient visual stimuli for an infant in the first months of life are faces and, in particular, eyes. This is likely to be especially true for human babies, because of the strong visual contrast between our white sclera and darker iris. Eye-to-eye contact in humans starts to appear already in the infant’s 4th week of life, and there is a dramatic increase in face fixations between 5 and 7 weeks. While it is almost certainly lacking any kind of true social relevance for the infant at this point, it is a strong bonding interaction between mothers and infants. Amount of eye-to-eye contact has been experimentally increased by having mothers imitate their infants, suggesting that this behavior is indicative of the quality of the mother-infant relationship. Sex-differences in eye-contact behavior have been found in 12-month-old infants, with females making more eye contact with males, and fetal testosterone levels being inversely correlated to amount of eye-contact behavior produced. In populations with developmental disorders, infants with Down’s syndrome begin making eye-contact later than normal infant, but then sustain it for longer periods of time, while infants with ASD tend to avoid eye-contact altogether.

Studies of other apes have shown that, at least in captivity, chimpanzees engage in mutual gaze with increasing frequency between infant ages of 0-2 months, establishing eye-to-eye contact as often as 28 times per hour by the age of 2 months. Mother-infant mutual gaze in chimpanzees has been observed as early as 2 weeks of age, and when these are encouraged, as in the case of nursery rearing, infants are capable of sustained face-to-face interactions. These developmental changes seem to be due to changes in infant visual behavior, rather than the mother’s, as the amount of time that female chimpanzees spent looking at their infant’s face did not vary over this period of time. Mutual gaze between mothers and infants is much rarer in primates other than humans and chimpanzees, possibly because of the stronger aggressive salience of direct stare in these species.

Related MOCA Topics
Referenced By:
Title Certainty
Infant-Caregiver Affect Attunement True


  1. Reciprocal face-to-face communication between rhesus macaque mothers and their newborn infants., Ferrari, Pier Francesco, Paukner Annika, Ionica Consuel, and Suomi Stephen J. , Current Biology, 11/2009, Volume 19, Issue 2, p.1768-72, (2009)
  2. Development of social cognition in infant chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): Face recognition, smiling, gaze, and the lack of triadic interactions, Tomonaga, Masaki, Tanaka Masayuki, Matsuzawa Tetsuro, Myowa-Yamakoshi Masako, Kosugi Daisuke, Mizuno Yuu, Okamoto Sanae, Yamaguchi Masami K., and Bard Kim A. , Japanese Psychological Research, Volume 46, Issue 3, p.227–235, (2004)
  3. Foetal testosterone and eye contact in 12-month-old human infants, Lutchmaya, S., Baron-Cohen S., and Raggatt P. , Volume 25, Issue 3, p.327 - 335, (2002)
  4. Patterns of Gazing in Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), Kaplan, G., and Rogers L. J. , International Journal of Primatology, Volume 23, Issue 3, p.501 - 526, (2002)
  5. Unique morphology of the human eye., Kobayashi, H, and Kohshima S , Nature, 1997 Jun 19, Volume 387, Issue 6635, p.767-8, (1997)
  6. Evolutionary roots of intuitive parenting: Maternal competence in chimpanzees, Bard, K. A. , Early Dev. Parent., Volume 3, Issue 1, p.19 - 28, (1994)
  7. The development of eye contact between mothers and normal versus Down's syndrome infants, Berger, J., and Cunningham C. C. , Developmental Psychology , 09/1981, Volume 17, Issue 5, p.678-689, (1981)
  8. Eye contact and face scanning in early infancy., Haith, M M., Bergman T, and Moore M J. , Science, 11/1977, Volume 198, Issue 4319, p.853-5, (1977)
  9. The role of eye-to-eye contact in maternal-infant attachment., Robson, K S. , J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 1967 May, Volume 8, Issue 1, p.13-25, (1967)
  10. Problems of nosology and psychodynamics of early infantile autism., KANNER, L , Am J Orthopsychiatry, 1949 Jul, Volume 19, Issue 3, p.416-26, (1949)