When moms ‘tune in,’ babies show empathy later

"These findings show how a mother's ability to tune-in to her baby's thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathize with the mental lives of other people," says Elizabeth Kirk. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Mothers who are “mind-minded,” or able to “tune in” to their baby’s thoughts and feelings by engaging in baby talk, may be able to help their child understand the thoughts of others as they grow.

For a new study, researchers observed 40 mothers and their babies when they were 10, 12, 16, and 20 months old.

Keeping a record of parental language while a mother and her child played for 10 minutes, psychologists logged every time the mother made “mind related comments”—inferences about their child’s thought processes through their behavior (for example, if a baby had difficulty opening the door on a toy car, they could be labeled as “frustrated”).

Strange stories

Revisiting 15 mother-child pairs when the children reached 5 to 6 years old, the child’s socio-cognitive ability was assessed using the “strange stories” method, the level at which a child is able relate to others and understand another person’s thoughts.

The strange stories method involves reading a fictional vignette which poses one of 12 social scenarios (contrary emotions, lies, white lies, persuasion, pretend, joke, forget, misunderstanding, double-bluff, figure of speech, appearance versus reality, or sarcasm). Children are then asked a comprehension question followed by a test to prove whether they have understood the mental manipulation covered in the story.

Published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, the findings show a strong, positive correlation between mind-related comments at 10, 12 and 20 months old and a child’s score on the strange stories task.

Therefore, the researchers say, a child’s ability to understand the thoughts of other people when they are 5 was related to how mind-minded their mothers were when they were babies.


“These findings show how a mother’s ability to tune-in to her baby’s thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathize with the mental lives of other people,” says Elizabeth Kirk, lecturer in the psychology department at University of York.

“This has important consequences for the child’s social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling.”

“These results are significant as they demonstrate the critical role of conversational interaction between mothers and their children in infancy,” adds Liz Meins.

Source: University of York