Five-month-old Benjamin could hardly be having more fun. He’s in his Jolly Jumper, which he loves, and his parents have put a full-length mirror in front of him. “He just squeals with delight and talks to this other baby!” says his mom, Tami Gee.
Cindy Brandon, an early childhood education professor at Toronto’s Centennial College, isn’t surprised. She’s a big fan of mirrors herself.
“I used to work as a child life specialist in community hospitals. I didn’t have much of a budget, but I made sure that all the cribs had Plexiglas mirrors attached to them.” In daycare settings too, she says, “we try to have Plexiglas mirrors down at the children’s height so they can crawl over.”
Why are mirrors so great for babies?
“They are inexpensive and fun,” says Brandon. “Babies are very attracted to faces.” For an inanimate object, mirrors are also remarkably interactive, she points out: “The baby moves, and the baby in the mirror moves too. It’s like there is somebody there that they can pat and smile at, and they’re smiling back.”
That interactive aspect is one of the reasons why Brandon feels that mirrors both encourage and provide an interesting window into babies’ development.
“I think mirrors enhance social and emotional development. They appeal to that sense of curiosity in children, to look and touch. And then, as they get older, that sense of self-discovery, the self-recognition: Hey, that’s me!”
Mirrors can encourage physical development too, Brandon notes. “For very young infants, we had the mirrors at the head of the crib, and they would be lifting their heads to see themselves, strengthening their neck muscles.” Older babies will crawl over or pull themselves up to see a strategically placed mirror. “There is hand-eye coordination involved as older babies reach out to touch the baby in the mirror.”
Peekaboo is the classic parent-child mirror game. Nine-month-old Karleigh loves to play peekaboo in the big bathroom mirror. “When I’m holding her, I’ll let her see herself and then move her out of view saying, ‘Where’s Karleigh?’” says her mom, Kara Hefferon. “Then I’ll move back so she can see herself again and say, ‘Peekaboo!’ and she just giggles like crazy. She never gets bored with it.”
Hey, That’s Me!
When do babies recognize themselves?
It doesn’t take a baby too long to figure out he can’t get his hands on that other baby in the mirror, as long as he can actually handle the mirror’s surface and learn from experience. But it’s a much bigger leap to understanding that he is actually seeing an image of his own face. In fact, some researchers suggest that babies don’t really recognize themselves until about 24 months of age, says early childhood education professor Cindy Brandon.
“It seems late, doesn’t it? It’s very hard to identify. The way they did it was to put something on the infant’s nose at various ages — like a dab of peanut butter — and then let them look in a mirror. The younger babies (12, 14 months) were patting and smiling, but they weren’t going to the nose. But at around 24 months, the babies would try to wipe off what was on their nose. So researchers took that to indicate babies were beginning to recognize themselves in the mirror image.”