Child Development Specialist/ Family Therapist
© 2000


Eye Contact: the bridge between two brains

How does a crying, hungry baby calm down? One baby will calm when she sees a parent go to the refrigerator, a second will calm only when the bottle is in her mouths, still a third will try to eat and continue to cry or fuss. How do the first two babies calm and regulate themselves, while the third one does not? Do these different responses reflect different temperaments, different levels of physiological or emotional maturity, or is learning to calm (self-sooth) a skill that is learned?

Infant research on eye contact between mother and baby offers insight into this question. Beginning at the biochemical level and ending with mother/infant interactive behaviors, Allan Schore examines what happens when a parent and child have eye contact in “Visual Experiences and Socioemotional development” found in Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (l994)

You can read the chapter for the details, but it boils down to this: A Baby forms a special relationship with an adult who is “attuned” to the child. Attunement is a parent/caregiver accurately mirroring and responding to the baby’s feelings and communications through all sensory modalities including the visual. It is not a skill learned in school, but emerges when a caregiver who truly enjoys interacting with baby provides a consistent physical and emotional relationship upon which the child can rely.

As the adult’s face communicates her thrill and delight in the child’s tiniest movements, earliest developmental attempts, the baby sees the gleam in the adult’s eyes. This specific and unique visual experience directly stimulates the infant’s brain, which in turn produce “pleasure chemicals”. The experience for baby is what an adult might feel when looking into a lover’s eyes and seeing absolute approval and love. After that, one can handle any frustration and conquer the world.

Thus there is a connection between the two brains, infant and adult, with the eyes providing the physical link. This visual connection of the attuned mother-infant dyad provides a combination of chemicals that increases the baby’s alert capable state. This unique visual connection both calms and organizes the baby.

Checking In and Looking Away: Interpersonal Regulation through Visual Contact

When the baby is stimulated by the parent’s responses and reinforced by the release of brain chemicals, the baby is filled with what essentially “parent juice”. When children raised in a family from birth run out of parent juice they “check in” with mom or dad for a refill. Research shows that at twelve months, infants can get a visual jolt of “parent juice” in a fraction of a second. Babies use the jolt of parent juice to continue exploring their world.

By contrast, when baby is about to touch the television controls and checks back visually with mom, she withholds the gleam, and thereby the juice. This is contrary to baby’s expectation, and baby is slowed or stopped by the unexpected. With the failure to get the juice, baby is left deflated and associates touching the television with negative feelings.

Babies can regulate the amount of parent juice they receive by looking away from mom. This looking a way pattern gives baby control over the amount of stimulation she receives from her environment. Mom can look away too, controlling the amount of “parent juice” baby receives. If mom is unavailable, baby can’t get enough parent juice and becomes depressed or constantly cruises the environment with limited ability to focus attention. By contrast, If mom is “in baby’s face” and is unresponsive to baby’s looking away, baby gets over-stimulated. The rhythm of visual connection between mom and baby is extremely important to baby’s ability to use mom to function in and learn about the world.

Implications for Internationally Adopted Children

What does this all mean for children who have spent time in orphanages with caregivers who, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the time to be good enough, attuned mothers? First it’s unlikely these children learned to use eye contact and all the subsequent interpersonal behaviors, including dyad-based calming. Thus we can expect to see more self-referred calming or more fussiness. In addition, mom’s stern look will have little if any effect when baby goes to play with the television.

Although many adoptive parents are convinced their children do make eye contact, further discussion reveals that this contact is made primarily during a few activities. These are typically activities in which they received the most attention from their previous caregivers, such as dressing and changing. “Mutual attention” is the term used in the Zero to Three’s Diagnostic manual to describe a mother and child maintaining eye contact and attention to each other in a calm state. Three to four month old babies raised from birth in a family have a 5+ second span of mutual attention. Eight to ten-month-olds have a 30+ second span; and by two years old, the span is 2+ minutes. Adoptive parents focus on the fact that eye contact occurs (having read the popular press’s reactive attachment stories). Mutual attention is a skill that needs to occur across a wide variety of activities and be maintained for a significant period (albeit seconds) of time.

The strong effect of eye contact, as well as unfamiliarity may explain why internationally adopted children often this behavior with parents. Developing the ability for extended eye contact takes family raised babies up to eight or nine months. Although the internationally adopted children arrive at eight months or older, they do not have the same capacity to tolerate eye contact as children who were raised from birth in a family. Thus, teaching these children to engage in eye contact requires a pro-active parent who will very gradually introduce and develop this type of interaction. Part of this gradual process is predicated on recognizing that self soothing and control of behavior (such as touching the television) will not be based on the visual connection between mother and child, as exists with a family raised child. Only after eye contact and the succeeding steps of interpersonal development occur, will calming and control behaviors begin to stem from the visual connection.

Developing Eye Contact with Internationally Adopted Infants and Young Children

Parents need to begin by connecting eye contact with something that the child already finds soothing. Food is often a good place to begin. A mom might feed her child a bite of the child’s favorite food, saying, “When we look in each other’s eyes it tastes better.” The mom might suggest the child feed the mom and be the “boss”, to give the child a sense of control, to develop reciprocity and help continue the interaction. Gradually through playing the “feeding and looking game” the child learns to associate eye contact with pleasure and calming, even when the original soother is removed. Many internationally adopted children have self-referred soothing methods, rather than dyad based behaviors. A self-referred soothing behavior, such as hair twisting, may be the way a child calms, and can be used in place of, or in addition to food to develop eye contact. In a manner similar to that above, the mom suggests that “when you look in my eyes while you twist your hair, you will feel better.” Thus, the self-referred, behavior can be coupled with the dyadic behavior to enable the child to gradually explore eye contact.

Under these circumstances the parent must be sensitive to the child’s need to remain in control of the new stimulation by looking away, sometimes after one or two seconds. This will happen until the eye contact behavior becomes familiar and more tolerable.