Turn-Taking during Mother-Baby Interactions

Babies as young as three months thrive if
given gaps in conversation and play. A clear
‘your turn-my turn’ structure is needed
during mother-baby interactions.


A small-scale study led by Dr Valentina Fantasia found that even very young children engage better with their mothers when treated as part of the conversation, rather than being played ‘at’. The study was originally published in Frontiers of Psychology. It examined an existing study of healthy mothers and mothers with postnatal depression who were filmed interacting with their children. Dr Fantasia carried out the research as part of her PhD studies at the University of Portsmouth. She is now a research fellow at La Sapienza University, in Italy.

She said: “Babies, even as young as three months, engaged more and for longer when the mother prepared their infant for play, paused between bouts of activity, and adapted their behaviour depending on the child’s signals, rather than providing endless activity and noise with no gaps for two-way communication.”

mother baby interaction

Intrusive mothering

Dr Fantasia hoped to shed some light on what’s been described in mothers with postnatal depression as intrusive mothering.

“We emphasise this was a small and limited study; but it’s the first step towards acknowledging what science calls intrusive behaviour of a mother towards her infant is complex. We may need to re-think how we describe and study mother-infant behaviour,” she said.

“We saw a clear difference in interactions between infants and their mothers that’s much more subtle than the word ‘intrusive’ implies.”

Postnatal depression and the effect on mother-baby interactions

She hopes better understanding could lead to improved clinical treatment for those with postnatal depression. In the study, researchers examined filmed interactions between mothers with and without postnatal depression and their three-month-old babies. All the pairs did many similar things. This included mothers talking to their babies or holding up toys for their babies’ gaze. The researchers saw differences in how mothers and babies interacted.

mother baby interaction

The findings

Well mothers were more likely to leave gaps during conversation and playtime with their babies. They allowed space for the baby to respond. They also had clear opening and closing phases to their time together. This behaviour suggests that both the baby and mother could influence what happened next. These mothers also seemed attuned to their babies’ occasional need for physical space; backing off a little from time to time. Such mothers spoke to their children more and appeared to watch and listen for responses.

The mothers with depression were more likely to overwhelm their child with excessive stimulation. They interrupted the child’s own activity, or change its course. The mothers did not give their children space. They continued to stroke or poke the baby even when it appeared distressed by attention. These mothers also maintained a steady smiling expression that didn’t respond to changes.

In addition, well mothers prepared their children for physical play by starting with small gestures. For example, hand holding, and checking the baby’s reactions. Next building gradually to larger gestures, such as lifting and pulling the baby away from its seat.

Mothers with depression started physical play with large gestures, such as lifting and pulling.

Last, well mothers and babies seemed to negotiate an end to play. Mothers mirrored their children’s slowing down of activity. Mothers with depression ended play sessions abruptly.

“It was as if the children of mothers with depression were the recipient of someone else’s activity, rather than taking part in a shared activity,” Dr Fantastia said.

She added that it was also possible mothers with depression might have found the experiment stressful. So, their behaviour could have been a reflection of trying hard to appear upbeat and engaged.

mother baby interactions

In conclusion

Interactions between a baby and its carer are believed to form the foundation of that individual’s social communication skills. Postnatal depression affects about one in ten new mothers. The condition has been linked to children later struggling with emotional, cognitive and self-regulatory capacities.

Download the whole paper here.

You might want to read more about postnatal depression.

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