Baby stare length predicts behavioral problems

Susanna Pilny for – @PlinyTheShorter

A new study published in Scientific Reports suggests that the length of time a newborn spends gazing at stimuli can serve as a predictor for later childhood behavioral problems.

A previous study had shown that infants between 4-10 months old had correlations between gaze length and certain traits like hyperactivity, but it was uncertain as to whether these traits were inherent (genetically or epigenetically encoded) or learned in the months following birth. Thus, the same team of researchers launched an investigation.

The study worked with 80 newborns (aged 1-4 days), measuring the amount of time they spent looking at stimuli (images of human faces). Later, when the children were between three and ten years old, the parents filled out questionnaires measuring the temperament traits of effortful control (“ability to regulate his or her emotions and to inhibit a dominant response in order to activate a subdominant response”) and surgency (where “a person tends toward high levels of extraversion, motor activity, and impulsivity”), as well as assessing behavioral difficulties.

Short stares suggest behavioral problems

It was found that as the length of time spent gazing increased, surgency and total childhood behavioral difficulties decreased—meaning that longer staring made it less likely that your child would have behavioral problems.

“We were … struck that differences between newborns in their visual attention predicted how the children would behave when they were older,” study author Angelica Ronald told LiveScience.

The association between attentional gaze control and behavioral control is uncertain, as newborns have not yet developed the known overlapping links between the brain systems in control of both in older children—specifically, the cingulo-opercular network and the fronto-parietal network.

However, it does raise an interesting point, as Ronald pointed out: “For anyone interested in the role of nature and nurture, it shows that children’s ability to attend to things visually is not all due to parenting or environmental effects after birth.”


Follow redOrbit on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram and Pinterest.