Infant-directed communication: Examining the many dimensions of everyday caregiver-infant interactions

Jessica E. Kosie, Casey Lew-Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Everyday caregiver-infant interactions are dynamic and multidimensional. However, existing research underestimates the dimensionality of infants’ experiences, often focusing on one or two communicative signals (e.g., speech alone, or speech and gesture together). Here, we introduce “infant-directed communication” (IDC): the suite of communicative signals from caregivers to infants including speech, action, gesture, emotion, and touch. We recorded 10 min of at-home play between 44 caregivers and their 18- to 24-month-old infants from predominantly white, middle-class, English-speaking families in the United States. Interactions were coded for five dimensions of IDC as well as infants’ gestures and vocalizations. Most caregivers used all five dimensions of IDC throughout the interaction, and these dimensions frequently overlapped. For example, over 60% of the speech that infants heard was accompanied by one or more non-verbal communicative cues. However, we saw marked variation across caregivers in their use of IDC, likely reflecting tailored communication to the behaviors and abilities of their infant. Moreover, caregivers systematically increased the dimensionality of IDC, using more overlapping cues in response to infant gestures and vocalizations, and more IDC with infants who had smaller vocabularies. Understanding how and when caregivers use all five signals—together and separately—in interactions with infants has the potential to redefine how developmental scientists conceive of infants’ communicative environments, and enhance our understanding of the relations between caregiver input and early learning. Research Highlights: Infants’ everyday interactions with caregivers are dynamic and multimodal, but existing research has underestimated the multidimensionality (i.e., the diversity of simultaneously occurring communicative cues) inherent in infant-directed communication. Over 60% of the speech that infants encounter during at-home, free play interactions overlap with one or more of a variety of non-speech communicative cues. The multidimensionality of caregivers’ communicative cues increases in response to infants’ gestures and vocalizations, providing new information about how infants’ own behaviors shape their input. These findings emphasize the importance of understanding how caregivers use a diverse set of communicative behaviors—both separately and together—during everyday interactions with infants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalDevelopmental Science
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

Keywords

  • caregiver-infant interaction
  • infancy
  • multimodal communication

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