We develop many of our preferences with experience. A cat may have scratched you when you were a child, and therefore you prefer not to be left alone with cats. However, babies come into this world already having many likes and dislikes. Some preferences are hard-wired and help babies attend to – and learn from – their environment.
First, babies love human faces. Even newborns prefer human faces to other interesting objects such as toys. For example, studies show that babies prefer to look at human faces compared to scrambled or upside down human faces. This preference for human faces is important because attending to human faces is necessary for babies to then recognize familiar faces (like their mother) and make associations between faces and sounds (like speech). Interestingly, research shows that babies prefer attractive faces compared to less attractive faces. The researchers asked adults rate faces on attractiveness; then they showed infants composites of attractive and unattractive faces. The infants preferred to look at the attractive faces, perhaps because attractive faces are more closely aligned with stereotypical faces, which babies have evolved to recognize.
Babies also love novelty. In fact, researchers have relied on babies’ preference for new things as a way of measuring what babies know and don’t know. For example, one way of testing whether infants understand the physical properties of objects (like whether a box resting on the edge of a table should fall over), is to show infants just that and measure where they look. For example, one study showed infants a box falling off the edge of a table, as well as the box sitting impossibly on the edge of the table. If the infant looked longer at the box sitting impossibly on the edge, it would indicate that the infant see something “new” or different about that box, and therefore that they detect that something is not normal. Babies’ preference for novelty helps them attend to new things in their environment and therefore can provide opportunities for learning.
Finally, babies also prefer to listen to their native language over a foreign language — even at birth. One study had two-day old infants listen to an audio track of their native language (English) and a foreign language (Spanish). Infants could control which audio track played by changing the rate of their sucking. The researchers found that the infants activated the audio track that played their native language more than the foreign language. Interestingly, research suggests newborn infants can also detect the difference between their native language and a foreign language, suggesting that infants are picking up on the intonation and sounds of their mother’s speech before they are even born. More so, babies prefer and learn more from infant-directed speech (i.e., baby talk) compared to adult-directed speech due to the high intonation, dramatized facial expressions and positive emotions that go along with it.
So what do babies like? Babies like human faces, novelty and their native language, which is exactly why babies love games and interactions like peek-a-boo so much. Not only do they get to see a human face and hear infant-directed speech, but covering the face helps the infants to somewhat forget what the adult looks like, while re-exposing it makes the face like new to them. Next time you want to entertain an infant, make sure you give them your best peek-a-boo face!