Newborn: Making the first eye contact

The screaming a-few-second-old newborn was delivered onto my torso. As the doctor and the nurses handled the newborn, the father and I turned and looked at each other. We both uttered a "girl!" in ASL (American Sign Language).

After weighing, measuring, and counting the newborn's fingers and toes, she was wrapped in a warm blanket and again brought back to my torso within minutes. She was crying hard. Through my motherly instinct, I gently rubbed her cheek. She suddenly stopped crying with still closed eyes, like she was wondering what mysteriously was going on.

For the first time she slowly opened her eyes wide and gazed at me for long minutes and then turned her gaze toward her father. We greeted and welcomed her in ASL (American Sign Language).

The baby stayed awake with her eyes widely open for the next one and half hour or so, while she was greeted by family members and relatives, some in ASL and some simply in silence and smile, before she drifted back into familiar sleep.

Sight, the primary organ of visual-spatial language

At birth, baby sees only in black and white and shades of gray. Baby's eyes can focus between 8 and 15 inches away, the distance to a parent's face when held in arms. Most of their vision is blurred. Color vision isn't well developed. Vision improves as baby grows and eyes mature.

Babies are attracted to lights, after all they had been in the dark for 9 months. During the first few nights, Juli was attracted to the softly glowing lamp in the dark bedroom. She turned her head and gazed at it long. Her eyes were glowing in awe and her lips pursed in awe, like "what the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." A true Zen beginner's mind.

The black and white contrast

Juli turned her head toward my art -- the orihon (Japanese accordion book) -- hanging from the ceiling and fixed her gaze at it longer than any other sightings (other than the lights).

The artistic orihon is handmade of black and white photographs. I don't know how Juli could see beyond 15 inches or how blurry the orihon was to her eyesight, but her behavior could tell us.

black and white image for baby

The greeting giant black eye

I was reading black and white flash cards to seven days old Juli (yep, early literacy!). Initially, I was not able to hold her attention as she was attracted to something out of her eye corner so I let her go to see what she was up to.

Juli turned around toward the giant camera sitting to her side. She studied the staring camera for more than a long minute. In the meanwhile, I realized that the camera was fairly black and the wall was white, which was contrast in color ideally for the baby's vision development.

Interestingly you see, pupils are black, and eyeballs are white and shiny. And, lashes are black. The lashes and the eyes move.

So all of these -- the contrast black and white, the shineness, and the movement -- attract baby's attention.

And, babies see well from about 10-18 inches from their eyes. It's an ideal distance between a parent's face and the baby held in their arm.

These ideal characteristics create the magic of eye contact between the parent and the baby. Bonding.

And, umm, the connection with the artificial one-eyed black creature -- the camera. Henceforth, some upcoming competitive challenges with the camera.

Like hearing parents who speak to their babies in their native spoken language from the first hour of birth on, native-signlan parents in our culture do likewise. Since birth, I regularly talked in ASL with Juli whose first language is ASL.

"Babies' eyes focus best on objects between 8 and 15 inches away – not coincidentally, the distance to your face when held in your arms."

Eye contact: the origin of sign language development

The length of time the baby Juli stayed awake and alert had increased. On the surface, it looked as if there wasn't much going on with language development in the first few weeks.

But, on a closer look, there was indeed something emerging new every week. A small step is actually a huge milestone.

Baby always prefers to gaze at their parent's face above anything else. Baby may respond when you talk with her in parentese or baby talk. She loves to listen.

Juli gazed at my face longer and more focused. At this time, her vision improved slowly. It allowed for more face-to-face interaction, and in turn, encouraged language acquisition.

That is, making eye contact or mutual gaze is the very first step in linguistic interaction that would build long toward a budding period of manual babbling that would later lead to first words in a signed language.

Eye contact is often said to play a critical role in interaction between adults and babies. But, for us, it plays a bigger critical role in language development in sign language.

At this time Juli could gaze at me longer with more focus, possibly because her vision had matured a bit more. With her longer gazes, I was able to interact more and talked in ASL with her whenever I could.

Common vocabulary and phrases translated to English as: "It's bath time." "You're feeling cold, brr." "Grandmother and grandfather are coming over to see you." "Burp done?" These are typical daily talks, of course, in ASL.

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Gaze-shifting, gaze-following, gaze turn-taking

Eye-gazing and object permanence