Study Notes

Caregiver-Infant Interactions in Humans: Reciprocity and Interactional Synchrony

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Reciprocity refers to the process in which a behaviour is matched during an interaction e.g. smiling back when someone smiles at us. Reciprocity develops, in its simplest form, at a very early age. According to Feldman (2007), reciprocity can be seen in interactions from 3 months of age. This conclusion was supported by Meltzoff & Moore (1997) who demonstrated that babies as young as 12-27 days would attempt to imitate facial and physical gestures.

Interactional synchrony refers to how a parent’s speech and infant’s behaviour become finely synchronised so that they are in direct response to one another. It was defined by Feldman (2007) as a “temporal coordination of micro-level social behaviour” and as “symbolic exchanges between parent and child”. Feldman suggests that interactional synchrony serves a critical role in developmental outcomes in terms of self-regulation, symbol use, and the capacity for empathy.

Brazelton et al. (1975) identified trends in mother-baby interactional synchrony. Videotapes of 12 mother-baby pairs’ play behaviour was examined up to 5 months of age, which revealed three phases of play:

  1. Attention and build-up
  2. Recovery
  3. Turning away

These three phases were repeated at regular intervals over the 7 minute footage. It was concluded that the three phases of play demonstrate the early signs of organised behaviour.

Isabella and Belsky (1991) hypothesised that caregiver-baby pairs that developed secure attachment relationships would display more synchronous behaviour than babies with insecure relationships. Babies were observed at 3 and 9 months and the secure group interacted in a well-timed, reciprocal, and mutually rewarding manner.

In contrast caregiver-baby pairs classed as insecure were characterized by interactions that were minimally involved, unresponsive and intrusive. Avoidant pairs displayed maternal intrusiveness and overstimulation, while resistant pairs were poorly coordinated, under-involved and inconsistent. Isabella and Belsky concluded that different interactional behaviours predicted attachment quality.

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