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Still Face Experiment and Why Parenting Matters For Child Development

The still-face experiment, first conducted in 1972 by Tronick, Adamson, Als, and Wise, is a laboratory experiment that demonstrates how an infant reacts to a mother’s non-responsive, expressionless face. This experiment reveals the still-face effect or syndrome, characterized by the infant’s behavioral changes like gaze aversion and reduced smiling in response to the lack of emotional feedback from the mother. The findings highlight the human need for emotional connection and the distress caused by neglect, underscoring the influence of parental responses on a child’s emotional and social development.

mother looks at baby

What is the still-face experiment?

The still-face experiment, or still-face paradigm (SFP), is a lab experiment in which a mother’s expressionless face evokes pronounced behavioral reactions in her baby, such as gaze aversion and decreased smiling. Dr. Edward Tronick, a psychology professor, and his colleagues first created the still-face experiment in the 1970s to prove the hypothesis that infants were active participants in social interaction.

Since then, different variations of this classic study have been widely used in infancy research​.​1​ It is a standard method for infancy research since it shows robust results regardless of sample variation, such as infant gender, and regardless of procedures, such as the length of each episode.

When was the still-face experiment conducted?

The still-face experiment was first conducted in 1972 by Tronick, Adamson, Als, and Wise. The videotape was released, and the study was presented in 1975 during the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) meeting. The paper was peer-reviewed and published in 1978.​2​

What is the still-face effect?

The still-face effect, or still-face syndrome, is the predictable change in an infant’s behavior when the mother’s facial expression does not respond to the infant. During the still-face episode, even though the non-responsive expressionless mother made eye contact, signifying openness to interaction, her blank facial expression was not responding to the infant. The infant was confused by an apparent contradiction caused by the lack of responsiveness.

What does the still-face experiment tell us?

The still-face experiment tells us that humans crave emotional connections with others, and being neglected creates distress. It has provided compelling evidence that humans are born wired to connect with others and form relationships. Parent-infant interactions in early childhood have a significant influence on child behavior.

Babies as young as 2 or 3 weeks old can recognize maternal unavailability when mothers do not reciprocate their interaction. Despite their young age, babies have clear expectations of social interactions and find that even a short, temporary breach of these expectations upsets them.

Psychologists also believe that the still-face paradigm demonstrates how infants use regulatory behaviors, such as gaze aversion, to regulate their negative arousal when distressed.

The study also shows infants’ ability to initiate exchanges and modulate attention. It underscores how important the transfer of emotion between the infant and caregiver is to the infant’s growing sense of competence in social exchanges​3​.

What are the steps in the still-face experiment?

Here are the three periods in the still-face experiment.​4​

  1. Baseline
    In the first interaction, the mother plays with her baby normally to create a baseline interaction for comparison.
  2. Still-face
    After the mother returns from break, she looks at her baby with an unresponsive, neutral facial face for several minutes.
  3. Reunion
    After the second break, the mother returns and resumes regular interaction with the baby.

During the SFP, infants are observed in three consecutive periods of interaction with an adult. Mothers briefly take breaks and leave the infants in a curtained alcove between periods.

What happened during the baseline period in the still-face experiment?

During the baseline period, the infant engaged attentively and gleefully with the mother. As the mother engaged with her baby, the infant responded by smiling, moving, and making sounds to connect.

What happened during the still-face period in the still-face experiment?

During the still-face period, the baby first tried re-establishing the usual reciprocal pattern. To elicit a response from the mother, the infant also exhibited a complex blend of greeting and retreating behaviors.​5​

Eventually, they became wary and withdrew from the situation by avoiding the sight of the non-responsive mother and looking away. The infant averted their gaze, smiled less, and demonstrated more negative emotions.

What happened during the reunion period in the still-face experiment?

During the reunion, the infants engaged in “wary monitoring” with less positive and more negative emotions as their straight face mom offered an apology, a carry-over from the still-face period.

What does the still-face experiment show about an infant’s role in an interaction?

The still-face experiment shows that infants are not a passive audience and can engage in bidirectional exchanges with their mothers to change maternal behavior. Babies and their parents are mutually regulated. The Still Face Experiment also shows us that infants’ socioemotional perception develops as early as 2 to 3 weeks after birth.

What does the still-face experiment show about an infant’s emotional development?

The still-face experiment shows that a parent’s reaction and interactions can affect a child’s emotions and social responses. An infant’s responses to the still-face mother are also found to be related to parental care quality, attachment quality, and future behavior issues.​6,7​

What does the still-face experiment show about an infant’s social awareness?

The still-face experiment has demonstrated that even very young infants have some basic social cognition and social development. Babies have a basic understanding of human faces, expressions, social interactions, and connections. They can also use simple goal-directed behaviors to manage their attention and emotions in different social contexts.

What does the still-face experiment show about a child’s social-emotional development?

In addition to this experiment, Dr. Ed Tronick Et Al. proposed the Mutual Regulation Model. He hypothesized that infants develop a sense that they can influence their interaction and mutual regulation when caregivers respond to their self-soothing behaviors such as gaze aversion and decreased smiling.

Co-regulating distress with a caregiver leads to the social emotional development of a baby. The development emotional regulation for kids is enhanced by their secure attachment ​8​.

How can parents use the still-face experiment results?

The still-face experiment has shown us that the father and mother’s attention matters. However, it is important to not overgeneralize the research results and assume parents need to respond and engage their toddler all of the time. Doing so would be unrealistic.

Besides, the still-face paradigm does not prove it is harmful to show a still face to a baby for two minutes. That is not what the SFP is about.

Straight faces are an everyday occurrence that most parents experience when they have to take a phone call or finish cooking dinner and are unable to respond to their children right away. Occasionally, being non-responsive for short periods is not the same as prolonged neglect in longer periods.

When parents cannot get to their children immediately, they can acknowledge and let their babies know that they will be there as soon as they can (and do it).

However, the still-face paradigm does show that parents’ interactive behavior contributes significantly to a baby’s developmental processes. It explains why the lack of engagement due to postpartum depression in their mother is associated with several social risks in a child’s development​9​.

The results of this experiment are consistent with the findings that responsive and sensitive parents tend to promote the development of a secure attachment style. Children of parents with consistent emotional availability show fewer avoidance behaviors during the reunion episode in the still-face experiment.


  1. 1.
    Adamson LB, Frick JE. The Still Face: A History of a Shared Experimental Paradigm. Infancy. Published online October 1, 2003:451-473. doi:10.1207/s15327078in0404_01
  2. 2.
    Adamson LB, Frick JE. The Still Face: A History of a Shared Experimental Paradigm. Infancy. Published online October 2003:451-473. doi:10.1207/s15327078in0404_01
  3. 3.
    Cohn JF, Matias R, Tronick EZ, Connell D, Lyons-Ruth K. Face-to-face interactions of depressed mothers and their infants. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development. Published online 1986:31-45. doi:10.1002/cd.23219863405
  4. 4.
    Toda S, Fogel A. Infant response to the still-face situation at 3 and 6 months. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1993:532-538. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.29.3.532
  5. 5.
    Gusella JL, Muir D, Tronick EZ. The Effect of Manipulating Maternal Behavior during an Interaction on Three- and Six-Month-Olds’ Affect and Attention. Child Development. Published online August 1988:1111. doi:10.2307/1130278
  6. 6.
    Moore GA, Cohn JF, Campbell SB. Infant affective responses to mother’s still face at 6 months differentially predict externalizing and internalizing behaviors at 18 months. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2001:706-714. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.37.5.706
  7. 7.
    Mesman J, van IJzendoorn MH, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ. The many faces of the Still-Face Paradigm: A review and meta-analysis. Developmental Review. Published online June 2009:120-162. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2009.02.001
  8. 8.
    Fischer AH, Manstead AS. Social functions of emotion and emotion regulation. In: Handbook of Emotions. Vol 16. ; 2016:424-439.
  9. 9.
    Lyons-Ruth K, Connell DB, Grunebaum HU, Botein S. Infants at Social Risk: Maternal Depression and Family Support Services as Mediators of Infant Development and Security of Attachment. Child Development. Published online February 1990:85. doi:10.2307/1131049


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