From the moment your baby arrives, you spend the first year and beyond getting to know them. You learn what makes them laugh, when they are hungry, what their different cries sound like, and more. At the same time, your infant is doing just what you are! Your baby is learning to recognize you through their senses. At birth, they are starting to recognize your voices, faces, and smells to figure out who is taking care of them.
Since the maternal voice is audible in utero, an infant starts to recognize their mother’s voice from the third trimester. The voice that they hear is muffled and low, and they can also hear their mother’s heartbeat. Soon after birth, studies have shown that a baby will recognize their mother’s voice and will expend great efforts to hear her voice better over unfamiliar female voices. This suggests that prenatal experiences influence a baby’s ability to recognize their mother’s voice. With continued exposure, your infant will become more familiar to the sound of other voices. They will start to recognize and form a preference to their father’s voice, as well as other family and friends.
If you remember from this previous module of the course, a newborn’s vision is pretty fuzzy. They can see just far enough away to perceive and study your faces when they are being held. In your baby’s first few months of life, the faces they see most often are yours! Given this exposure, your baby learns to recognize your face. Studies have shown that by three months of age your baby can discriminate between their mother’s face and the face of a stranger. As with your voices, with more experience your baby will develop a preference for your faces and those around you. You may start to feel a sense of excitement when you see a smile emerge on your baby’s face as they recognize yours.
In addition, your baby is using their sense of smell to recognize their mother. While you are feeding or otherwise in close contact with your baby, you are giving your child the opportunity to become more familiar with your unique smells. Researchers have found that babies are able to discriminate between their mother’s odors and odors produced by either unfamiliar lactating females and females who have never given birth. Newborns begin to prefer their mother’s odors, and this familiar scent may even help calm or soothe your infant.
As new parents, you may worry that your infant does not yet recognize you, or you will not be able to tell when they do. Remember that each baby is different, and they will develop preferences at their own unique pace. Also, it may take time for you as well to learn your baby’s signals and habits. During these few months and beyond, they will be constantly exposed to your faces and voices, giving them the opportunity to learn all about you! Take this time to bond with your new baby!
For additional information and resources, take a look at the following.
1. Within their first few months, your baby will become fascinated with your faces and voices. They will develop different ways of communicating and will show you that they know who you are. Every baby is different and will reach these milestones at different times. Check out this video from Pathways, endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, to visualize what these different communication milestones look like!
2. Annie Murphy Paul gave an exciting TED Talk about what infants learn in the womb. Check it out to learn more about how your infant’s preferences for your voice and more start to develop before they are born!
3. Over the first few months, your baby forms preferences for your voice, face, and scent. Learn more about those characteristics and others in this article from Parenting Science.
4. For some parents, forming that special bond with your baby takes place right after birth. But for some it may develop more slowly over time. Dr. Gail Gross provides some helpful tips for parents on ways you can form an attachment to your baby. Creating this intimate relationship with your baby can help them better recognize you!
Barrera, M. E., & Maurer, D. (1981). Recognition of mother’s photographed face by the three-month old infant, Society for Research in Child Development, 52(2), 714-716.
Cernoch, J. M. & Porter, R. H. (1985). Recognition of maternal axillary odors by infants. Child Development, 56(6), 1593-1598.
DeCasper A. J., & Spence M. J., (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development, 9, 133-150.
Field T. M., et al. (1984). Mother-stranger face discrimination by the newborn. Infant Behavior and Development, 7, 19-25.
Mills M., & Melhuish E. (1974). Recognition of mother’s voice in early infancy. Nature, 252, 123-124.