Infant Eye Contact May Predict Later Antisocial Behavior


The lack of sensitive parenting early on may predict the development of callous, unemotional traits later on.

New research suggests that early parents’ lack of eye contact with their infants might indicate a tendency toward antisocial behavior.

The study, published in Biological Psychiatry, suggests that reduced attention to the human face soon after birth may increase the likelihood of being less responsive to others’ distress later. Callous, unemotional traits have been hypothesized to be precursors of antisocial behavior found in psychopathologic adults. These traits include problems recognizing the emotions of others, impairment in responding to the distress of others, and impaired guilt or empathy. Researchers hypothesize that these traits could be linked to decreased attention to the face, especially the eyes, during infancy. Eye contact with caregivers may contribute critically to infant bonding and the development of the “social brain.”

Principal investigator Jonathan Hill, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Manchester, UK noted, “A lot of research shows that we read others’ emotions in their eyes.“It is likely that we learn about others’ emotions early in life through eye contact and that this contributes to later responsiveness to the emotions of others.” Early home environment and sensitive parenting may also play important roles.

“This is an exciting first step in understanding the potential utility of infant eye gaze measures in the development of callous-unemotional traits in children,” agreed Kent A. Kiehl, PhD, professor of psychology at University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and author of The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience.

The researchers enrolled 213 first-time mothers during their twentieth week of pregnancy. When their babies reached 5 weeks old, a trained observer assessed their preferences for tracking either a human face or a red ball. When the baby reached 29 weeks of age, researchers looked at maternal sensitivity using a standard test in which they observed mothers playing with their children. When the children were 2 1/2, researchers assessed callous-unemotional traits using standardized parental questionnaires. The study included 108 girls and 105 boys. At 2 1/2 years, boys tended to have higher callous-unemotional scores than girls. Higher maternal sensitivity was significantly linked to lower callous-unemotional traits in girls, but not in boys.

Boys were less affected by the parenting component, so constitutional influences might be stronger for boys. Girls were thought to be more susceptible to environmental effects, such as parenting and home environment.

Early eye contact is a major factor in the bonding process, and plays a significant role in successful infant massage. In our classes we can emphasize the importance of eye contact, allowing parents to continue and/or begin the bonding process. I have always thought that this, plus skin-to-skin contact and vocalization continue the bonding process for many months, and even years. Thus, teaching parents of premature babies and others who for one reason or another were not able to bond in the first days after birth, is crucial. When I was teaching, 37 years ago, I tried to get parents into my classes as soon as possible after their babies were born. Eventually, I was able to go into the NICU and teach parents touch and holding methods, and finally, an abbreviated massage.

I would like to take this time to encourage you to again read Infant Massage, a Handbook for Loving Parents. In it, I write extensively about bonding and attachment and situations such as prematurity and “colic” in which parents often find themselves distancing from their infants.

by Vimala McClure