Making first eye contact
The screaming 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.
Once the newborn Juli was wrapped in warm blanket and calmed, 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 glowing lamp in the bedroom. She turned her head and gazed at it long. Her eyes were glowing in awe and her lips pursed in awe.
The black and white orihon
Juli turned her head toward 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 can tell us.
The greeting giant black camera
I was reading black and white flash cards to seven days old Juli. 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.
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.
"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 (not these English translations).
Also see Following people with eyes