Parent-Infant Interactions Without Toys Beneficial for Shared Emotional Experiences Alongside Play with Toys

By Cynthia A. Frosch, PhD, IMH-E®

In my early toy-based observational research with parents and infants, I noticed that some babies did not look at their parents during their interactions, and in other families, the parent never looked at the baby. Yet in other parent-infant pairs, both looked at the other frequently — the two appeared to have an ease, flow, and joy in their interactions. 

My longtime colleague and thought partner and an investigator on the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), Margaret Tresch Owen, and I remained curious about these parent-infant interactions for decades. Why was it that some parents and infants shared positive emotions and eye contact, while others did not? How might our research on parent-infant interactions with toys contribute to the patterns we were witnessing? As researchers and practitioners, what were the best ways to observe parents and support Early Relational Health (ERH)? 

Existing research-focused rating systems for describing parent-infant interactions often require researchers to rate the parent’s and infant’s behavior separately with much less focus on describing the space between the parent and infant. However, with a growing focus on ERH and foundational research findings on dyadic-level constructs such as emotional connection, dyadic synchrony, and dyadic mutuality, we decided to investigate dyadic-level shared emotional experiences in a sequential way during parent-infant interaction.  

This led our team to embark on the “I SEE You” research project, where Shared Emotional Experiences (SEEs) are defined as instances of positive, reciprocal emotional sharing between parent and infant, no matter how brief. After an extensive literature search, we chose SEEs to capture how parents and infants see and experience each other as interactive, relational partners. In collaboration with Sheila Sjolseth, a doctoral student at Auburn University; Samantha Redig, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Dallas; and her faculty mentor, Margaret Tresch Owen, we reanalyzed six-month mother-infant interactions from the NICHD SECCYD. This dataset provided us with a wonderful starting point for exploring shared emotional experiences.

Videotape of the study’s mother-infant interactions began with instructions for the parent to play however they would like with their infant, with their own toys or without toys. In this way, we could observe mothers’ efforts to engage their infants in interaction and using event-sampling methodology, determine how mothers’ bids for interaction with their infants contributed to dyadic-level shared emotional experiences.

We first coded mothers’ bids for interaction with their infants as either toy or non-toy bids: Toy bids were efforts to engage the baby in focusing on, manipulating, or otherwise engaging with a toy; and non-toy bids were efforts to engage the baby in “conversation,” face-to-face play, or games such as peekaboo. We then noted whether the bid resulted in a SEE. If a SEE was observed, its duration was noted in seconds.

Our results indicated that the majority of mothers used both toy and non-toy bids for interaction with their babies during the free-play session, although non-toy bids were used less frequently than toy bids. We also found that the likelihood of experiencing a SEE was much greater following a non-toy bid than a toy bid for interaction. Perhaps most interesting to us, we found that mothers’ non-toy bids for interaction resulted in significantly longer shared emotional experiences than bids using a toy.  

Even though non-toy bids were more likely to result in a SEE, we do not want to suggest in any way that toy play with infants is not of value. What we do want to suggest is that when building dyadic-level relational health centered on shared positive affect and engagement with each other as relational partners, non-toy play during infancy may be particularly valuable. Differences in the sharing of affect in toy and non-toy interactions may also tell us something about interactive, relational contributions to various developmental outcomes, such as language. Future research will pave the way.

Looking Ahead for Future SEEs Research

As researchers, these seemingly simple findings may help to inform our selection of research paradigms and the recommendations we share in our work with families. We have much more to learn and explore based on this study’s initial findings. For instance, it would be valuable to explore how the infant’s bids for interaction with their caregiver relate to the presence and duration of a SEE. We are excited to explore how infants’ bids for interaction, such as vocalizations and motor movements, contribute to shared emotional experiences. As we continue research on this topic, we anticipate including parent voices to discover the goals, motivations, and background behind parents’ use of toy and non-toy bids for interaction. We’d also like to extend the research to include fathers, other caregivers, and a wider range of racial and ethnic identities and family structures. 

Suggestions for Creating Positive SEEs Across Early Childhood

The CDC includes a feature on Special Playtime on its Essentials for Parenting Toddlers and Preschoolers webpage. This 2022 NPR Life Kit article on “special time” suggests that five minutes of intentional, playful interaction with children can help to promote relational health across early childhood with lifelong benefits for a child’s social and emotional well-being.

Considerations for When You Play with Your Child:

  • How does it feel inside when you look at your baby? When your baby looks at you?
  • Do you feel more comfortable when you play with your baby with a toy or without?
  • When you are engaging your baby with a toy, do you tend to look at the toy more often or at your baby?  
  • Is there a face-to-face activity you would like to try out with your baby today? Some examples might include singing a song with your baby, playing peekaboo, dancing with your baby, or engaging in a few moments of a hand or finger play such as patty-cake. No matter what activity you choose, notice your baby’s facial expressions, sounds, and movements. What might these tell you about your baby’s experience?

Cynthia A. Frosch, PhD, IMH-EⓇ, is an associate professor of Human Development and Family Science at Auburn University and an Endorsed Infant Mental Health Mentor. She has extensive experience training researchers in the observation and rating of parent-child interactions and enjoys working with families and practitioners to translate research findings into meaningful and actionable steps to promote relational health.