Infant Effects

Subtle as well as not-so-subtle characteristics of infants influence parenting (and, on the transactional principle, infant development). So-called infant effects may be of different kinds. Some are universal and common to all infants; others will be unique to a particular infant or situation.

Some physical features of infancy probably affect parents everywhere in similar ways. By the conclusion of the first trimester, fetuses are felt to move in utero ("quickening"), and soon after (with support) fetuses may survive outside the womb ("viability"). These are significant markers in the life of the child and in the lives and psyches of the child's parents. After birth, the infant's nature as well as certain infant actions are likely to influence parenting. The newborn has a large head dominated by a disproportionately large forehead, widely spaced sizeable eyes, a small and snub nose, an exaggeratedly round face, and a small chin. The ethologist Konrad Lorenz (1935/1970) argued that these physiognomic features of "babyishness" provoke adults to express reflexively nurturant reactions toward babies—even across different species (Alley, 1981,1983). Under ordinary conditions, specific infant behaviors elicit caregiving or other specific responses from parents (Bell and Harper, 1977; Bornstein, Tamis-LeMonda, et al., 1992). And from the moment of birth, babies exercise the several effective signals that are at their disposal: Crying will motivate adults to approach and soothe, and smiling will encourage adults to stay near.

Other structural characteristics of infants affect parenting and the quality of parent-infant interaction: Infant health status, gender, and age are three significant factors. Preterm infants, for example, often have difficulty regulating engagements with caregivers, as made evident by increased gaze aversion, decreased joint play, and lower levels of joint attention (Landry, 1995), and their mothers are reciprocally more active and directive (Goldberg and DiVitto, in Vol. 1 of this Handbook). Parental patterns of interaction with infant girls and boys are a second more complicated infant effect. On the one hand, there is evidence that parenting infant girls and boys is surprisingly similar (Leaper, in Vol. 1 of this Handbook; Lytton and Romney, 1991). On the other, nurseries for newborn infants provide color-coded blankets, diapers, and so forth; infant gifts, beginning with the baby shower, are carefully selected with gender in mind; and infants are uniformly dressed in gender-typed clothing (Shakin, Shakin, and Sternglanz, 1985). Gender organizes parents' initial descriptions, impressions, and expectations of their infants (Condry and Condry, 1976; Rubin, Provenzano, and Luria, 1974). Finally, infant development per se, a third structural infant effect, exerts pervasive control over parental behavior. For example, cross-cultural study shows that mothers of younger infants use more affect-laden speech but that, as infants achieve more sophisticated levels of motor exploration and cognitive comprehension, mothers increasingly orient, comment, and prepare their babies for the world outside the dyad by increasing amounts of their information-laden speech (Bornstein, Tamis-LeMonda, et al., 1992).

Other idiosyncratic characteristics of infants are no less stimulating to parents. Goldberg (1977) taxonomized the salient infant characteristics that affect parents: responsiveness, readability, and predictability. Responsiveness refers to the extent and the quality of infant reactivity to stimulation. Readability refers to the definitiveness of infant behavioral signals: An "easily read" infant is one who produces unambiguous cues that allow caregivers to recognize state quickly, interpret signals promptly, and thus respond contingently. Predictability refers to the degree to which infant behaviors can be anticipated reliably. Each baby possesses her or his unique profile of these characteristics.

Infant cognitive ability and temperament, actual or perceived, also influence adults and the effectiveness of adult ministrations. Trevarthen and Hubley (1978) noted that, once the infant begins to focus attention on interesting objects in the environment, the mother adjusts by starting to create "spectacles" for the child. Having a temperamentally easy baby or perceiving a baby as temperamentally easy (relatively happy, predictable, soothable, and sociable) enhances a mother's feelings that she is competent (Deutsch, Ruble, Fleming, Brooks-Gunn, and Stangor, 1988). More to the point, the same behavioral intervention may rapidly soothe one infant yet seem totally ineffective for another, leading parents of different infants to reach different conclusions about their competence as parents, despite similarities in their parenting (Putnam et al., in Vol. 1 of this Handbook).

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