Science: What Babies Know About Intimacy

The Story:

Human infants are born into a very complicated social world. When there is a household visitor, they don’t know if she is the nanny or a visiting family friend, or even a family friend who might be uncomfortable around children. And they don’t have the language skills to understand when such relationships are explained to them. But they do have other skills, from very young. And recent research indicates something about how they learn important information from … spit. Or a willingness to share it.


As part of this research, infant psychologists showed babies, eight to ten months, a puppet show. In the show, a woman, the puppeteer, took a bite of some food. She then put the food in the puppets mouth ‘feeding’ it to him. She thereafter ate that food again herself. It was a situation that implied saliva sharing. The show also involved a different woman, and the same puppet. The second woman passes a ball back and forth with the puppet. It is a cooperative activity that does not involve the sharing of spit.

Strange New Worlds: 

As the puppet-show experiment continues, the puppet then shows signs of distress. Even very young babies look first to the saliva-sharing woman, as if they expect her to come to the aid of the crying baby puppet. They don’t look to the ball-throwing woman for this. A willingness to share spit implies intimacy, and a care-taking relationship, even in the eyes of an eight-month old baby.

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