Do Smiling Babies Have to Look Away from People Because They’re ‘Overwhelmed with Joy’?

Claim

Infants look away from people after they smile because they are "overwhelmed with joy" and "have to regulate" by looking somewhere else.

Rating

Unknown

Reporting

An October 10 2019 post to Reddit’s r/wholesomememes featured an uplifting claim by way of screenshot, claiming that when babies first start “emoting,” they have to look away after a few seconds of smiling:

Overwhelming joy! from wholesomememes

A tweet screenshot bore no date, but the username was visible and attached to Washington Post writer Elizabeth Bruenig. We were unable to find the tweet by the time the screenshot made it to Reddit, but it was accessible via the Internet Archive:

apparently when babies first start emoting, they sometimes turn away in the middle of smiling at you because they’re so overwhelmed by joy they can’t handle all the emotion and have to regulate by looking somewhere else

Remaining retweets indicated the tweet was live for at least a day:

Comments on the September 28 2019 tweet preserved in archived versions largely responded in the manner Reddit users did, expressing their own joy at such a delightful fact. But a handful expressed some skepticism about the claim, or requested a citation:

cute if true, but how on Earth do they know *that’s* why they look away, rather than just, like, babies have mushbrains

I’d love to see the research that led to that conclusion.

Our attempts to locate a citation led to a similarly-worded claim on the site JustTheFactsBaby.com. In an undated post titled “Why Babies Smile,” the cite claimed:

By [the age of] four to six months, your baby will start to smile, then look away. “Babies are learning to regulate emotions and the joy may be too intense,” says Dr. [Daniel] Messinger. Let her look away, then reengage once she returns her smile to you.

JustTheFactsBaby.com did not provide a source for the claim other than Messinger (although it did include a link to “fashionable baby headbands.”) A subsequent related entry stated:

Dr. Daniel Messinger is an associate professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Miami. He has written numerous research papers on the topic of infant smiling.

Messinger was listed as a co-author of a study on infant smiling in September 2015, but the press release did not include the “overwhelmed with joy” claim, nor did it offer anything more of the study. Messinger was also listed as co-author of a 2007 study [PDF] published by Advances in Child Development and Behavior, involving “the results of studies of infant perception, infant smile production, observers’ ratings of those smiles, and the smiling of nonhuman primates.”

That research cited earlier research into infant smiles and their underlying emotions, citing prior studies that observed infant behavior when smiling, as well as theoretical explanations for the observed behavior:

[Infants] tend to gaze at mother’s face, smile, gaze away, and then end the smile. Such gaze aversions — at least among 5-month-olds playing peekaboo — tend to occur during higher intensity smiles and smiles of longer durations (Stifter & Moyer, 1991). It is suggestive that toward 6 months of age infants become especially likely to control their own positive emotion by gazing away from mother during the course of a smile. This is also the period in which infants become adept at using intense open-mouth smiles with eye constriction to participate in highly arousing social situations. Infants are simultaneously becoming more actively positive during interactions and becoming more active at regulating the conditions under which they will become positive engaged (Messinger et al., 2001; Yale et al., 2003).

[…]

Although infants’ goals are relatively inchoate, Carver’s (2001, 2003) proposal may be relevant to infant’s proclivity to gaze away from the parent’s face during a smile. Infants are learning to expect peaks and declines in arousal associated with interactive smiling. The infant’s growing tendency to gaze away from the parent’s face during a smile may index the infant’s developing comprehension that an affective climax has been reached; that is, in the most primitive sense, a goal has been achieved. In this sense the infant’s smiling behavior may index the infant’s affective and cognitive comprehension of their interface with the environment at a particular moment (Fogel, Bosma, & Kunnen, 2001).

An abstract for the same study said that infants regulated emotion by “gazing away” from those people at whom they smiled:

Smiling may simultaneously index a desire to interact and the dissipation of arousal associated with that interaction. Infants’ capacity to become actively and vigorously caught up in emotionally positive smile-mediated interaction is linked to their ability to regulate that emotion by gazing away from their interactive partners. Ultimately, this attentional control paves the way for infant’s tendency to use smiles to initiate early referential communication with a partner. These anticipatory smiles may provide a developmental bridge between early emotionally positive dyadic responsivity and later patterns of social competence.

Messinger was also quoted in a November 2015 Wall Street Journal article about the 2015 study and infant smiling behaviors in general. The paper reported:

Yet there are clear signs that, between six weeks and six months, baby smiles become increasingly responsive to social cues. They smile less when they are alone and more when with people, particularly familiar people who also are smiling. Patterns of gazing and smiling become more coordinated.

In the classic “still face” experiment, babies 3 months old and older will become distressed if an adult who has been smiling at them suddenly stops and becomes unresponsive. And at about the same age, babies who are gazing and smiling at a parent will look away on their own while still smiling. Scientists think that is a sign that they are starting to regulate their own emotions and need to take a break from the intensity of the one-on-one interaction.

The Wall Street Journal referenced a “classic ‘still face’ experiment,” linking to a 2008/2009 Developmental Review meta-analysis, “The many faces of the Still-Face Paradigm.” In that research, authors used the findings of a 1978 experiment during which the mothers of infants maintained a “still face,” not providing facial cues to infants so that the babies’ reactions could be measured. Building on those findings in the meta-analysis, researchers described various instances in which infants responded to “mismatched” facial cues and other stimuli:

Infants’ affective displays reflect their appraisal of the interaction, and function as powerful communicative messages to the adult partner. Reciprocity is not always achieved however. In fact, imperfect interaction and mismatching of communication is the rule rather than the exception in mother–infant interactions. This chain of events is applicable to ‘normal’ mismatches that happen regularly in interaction, but in the still-face episode of the SFP [The Still-Face Paradigm], the mismatch is more prolonged, and more intense. Infants’ attempts to repair the mismatch by showing negative affect as a message to the adult partner will obviously fail as long as the still-face episode persists. This failure of the infants’ interactive regulatory capacities may lead to self-regulation and coping strategies such as gazing away to avoid the stressful stimulus, or self-soothing behavior (e.g., hand-to-mouth actions).

In that particular context, it seemed the infants’ responsive gazing away pertained specifically to the introduction of “mismatch” stimuli, i.e., parental “still face” behavior upending the infants’ understanding of a progression of facial cues. The meta-analysis referenced 1982 research into infant stimulation thresholds, smiling, and affection, as part of a broader feedback loop between smiling infants and various adults:

Fogel (1982) hypothesized an affective tolerance model, based on the work of Solomon (1980). Fogel’s model describes how infants become increasingly more capable of tolerating high-intensity stimulation without withdrawing from the interaction. Infants develop skills to regulate the arousal caused by face-to-face interaction, as evidenced by so-called tension-release cycles as proposed by Sroufe and Waters (1976). These cycles are characterized by initial attentive behavior accompanied by increased tension as shown by increases in heart rate, followed by a release of tension in the form of smiling or laughter (Brazelton, Koslowski, Main, Lewis, & Rosenblum, 1974; Sroufe & Waters, 1976). The smile seems to function as a regulator of arousal, and as a communicative signal toward the adult partner who can infer that the infant is at an optimal level of arousal. Using these signals, a sensitive and responsive adult can facilitate regulation, which will increase the infant’s capacity to tolerate affective arousal.

[…]

When failing to [optimally self-regulate emotions] during the still-face episode, the infant is left to regulate its own emotions, which is reflected in increases in negative affect and gaze aversion as the infant has only a limited array of regulatory capacities.

We were unable to clarify from that specific study that the claim about infants becoming “overwhelmed with joy” was supported by it. The context in which it appeared was typically as a response in infants for SFP behaviors resulting in “negative affect and attempts to ‘escape’ by gaze aversion.”

Research in 2012 applying the SFP to slightly older children attempted to apply existing findings to older children, and reported:

Seventy mothers and children were videotaped in the Toddler Still-Face paradigm (T-SF), an age appropriate adaptation of the Face-to-Face Still-Face paradigm. Similar to their younger counterparts, 2½ year-olds displayed the traditional “still-face effect,” including an increase in negative affect, gaze aversion, and a wide array of behaviors indicative of proximity seeking to the mother, solicitation of her attention, and avoidance and a “reunion effect,” characterized by a carryover of negative affect and avoidance behavior (e.g., moving away from the mother) from the still-face episode to the reunion play episode.

Messinger was also quoted in a 2013 article published by the National Science Foundation (NSF) on the overall meaning of infant smiles at varying stages of development:

In an experiment at the University of Miami’s Early Play and Development Lab, babies are secured in a special seat, so they can get a good view of mom or dad, and move both their arms and legs. Babies are tested at four months, and again at one year.

Several video cameras capture this short, structured playtime.

“They play. Then, after two minutes, the mom will stop responding to the baby. We want to see what the baby does. How the baby either chooses to try to re-engage the mom, or maybe uses that time to look away and disengage, and then, start playing again,” explains Messinger.

The videos are analyzed with a software program that precisely measures the facial movements of both the baby and the mom … The key, he adds, is to use those measurements to better understand how interaction occurs, and how babies learn early social rules.

“One of the things we found is that when a baby looks away from the parent, it just means they are interested in other things, it doesn’t mean they are less interested in the parent. It just means they need to look around and see what else is going on,” says Messinger.

Messinger — who credited for the original explanation about baby smiles on JustTheFactsBaby.com — provided an alternative hypothesis for “gaze aversion” in that reporting, indicating that babies might “need to look around and see what else is going on.” A 2015 Wall Street Journal article suggested babies might avert their gazes to “take a break from the intensity of the one-on-one interaction,” similar to the original tweet’s claim. But the linked research applied primarily to multiple observed experiments, in which parents deliberately nullified their facial reactions to gauge infant responses to that modulated behavior.

A tweet claimed that infants “sometimes turn away in the middle of smiling at you because they’re so overwhelmed by joy they can’t handle all the emotion and have to regulate by looking somewhere else.” We were not able to verify that based on research co-authored by the researcher cited in the article from which the claim was likely sourced, as the research seemed to be more dynamic than that particular claim hinted. And that same researcher also said that infants sometimes look away out of curiosity, not disinterest. However, the claim was not made up out of thin air, either. We rate this claim Unknown.