New study shows babies learn to imitate when they are imitated
The Sector > Research > New study shows that imitation is a core aspect of infant skill learning

New study shows that imitation is a core aspect of infant skill learning

by Freya Lucas

October 03, 2023

Babies learn to imitate others because they themselves are imitated by caregivers, and this imitation is a building block of social learning and language development, researchers have found. 


A recent study from Ludwig Maximillian University (LMU) of Munich showed that infants acquire language, learn how to handle objects, and develop other skills by means of imitation, and are “constantly learning from others without even being aware of it”.


For the study, the researchers looked at the interaction between mother and child over several months. The babies came into the lab for the first time at the age of six months, while their final visit was when they were 18 months old. As they engaged in various play situations, the interactions and imitations of mother and child were analysed.


The longitudinal study shows that the more sensitive a mother was in her interactions with her six-month-old child and the more often she imitated the infant, the greater the child’s ability was at the age of 18 months to imitate others.


How well children learn to imitate others is crucially dependent on the sensitivity with which their parents respond to them. In this context, sensitivity is defined as the capability of a caregiver to pick up on the child’s signals and react promptly and appropriately to them. 


“The sensitivity of the mother is a predictor of how strongly she imitates her child,” said Dr Samuel Essler, lead author of the study.


In the interaction between parents and child, mutual imitation is a sign of communication. Parents respond to the signals given by the child and reflect and amplify them. A mutual imitation of actions and gestures develops. 


“These experiences create connections between what the child feels and does on the one hand and what it sees on the other. Associations are formed. The child’s visual experience is connected to its own motor activity,” said Markus Paulus, Chair of Developmental Psychology and Educational Psychology at LMU, explaining the neuro-cognitive process.


In addition, the study sheds light on what makes humans social beings, namely that our individual abilities only develop through interaction with others. Indeed, they owe their existence to the particular way in which humans raise their young.


“By being part of a social interaction culture, in which they are imitated, children learn to learn from others. Over the course of generations and millennia, this interplay has led to the cultural evolution of humans,” Paulus continued. 


“Through social learning, certain actions or techniques do not have to be constantly invented anew, but there is a cultural transfer of knowledge. Our results show that the ability to imitate, and thus cultural learning, is itself a product of cultural learning, in particular the parent-child interaction.”


Access the findings in full here

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