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Social Relationships of Infants in Daycare

by   Phyllis Porter, M.A.
Recently researchers have begun to look at the formation of friendships during the toddler stage. Before this, it was common to assert that toddlers and infants exhibited parallel play but did not interact. The studies done on toddlers have disputed this assertion, and it is widely accepted professionally that toddlers develop friendships and interact in play.

However, the affect of daycare upon the formation of friendships amongst infants has been neither extensively nor intensively studied. Today, a large number of infants spend up to 12 hours each day in close proximity to other infants in daycare settings. The few existing studies have shown that infants as young as six months old engage in social interactions with other infants.

One of the major drawbacks to these studies is that infants, unfamiliar with each other, are brought together in contrived settings (Whaley, Rubenstein, 1994). From these laboratory situations, it is difficult to make assumptions about behaviors in other more natural settings.

For these laboratory observations, mothers would bring their infants to play with previously unknown babies. Typically mothers did not provide many chances for "under-one's" to play with infant friends (Lewis, 1995). In contrast, today's infants spend much time together, either in daycare or in playgroups.

gazing into your eyes Feinman (1991) discusses how our culture needs to bring babies back into a social world. He discusses the "self-sufficiency trinity" in which infants respond alone to a strange and confounding world because they are left alone to develop alone. He compares the infant to Alice in Wonderland. Her travels through a totally illogical world compare with what the infant faces in developing his/her own view of the world. By placing the infant into a social setting with other infants this "aloneness" is alleviated, and an awareness of self is encouraged and abetted.

Michael Lewis (1979) says, "the child's knowledge of self and others is developed through one's interaction with these others, and that social interaction is the basic unit out of which social cognition derives" (p.7). In a similar vein, Mead (cited in Lewis, 1979) thought "knowledge of self was dependent upon knowledge of others since knowledge of others (and the world) is necessary to differentiate between self and others and to perceive self as an object" (p. 9).

It is my contention, after observing infants for five years in a daycare center, that very young infants do make social contacts with their peers and do play interactively with each other. Documented research did not support what I was observing on a daily basis. For this reason, I methodically recorded my observations, both in writing and on videotape.

The operational procedures for the infant room were consistent over the five year period. Eight infants, in age from six weeks to 16 months, were cared for an average of ten hours per day. (Forty four were cared for in just under five years.) Most of the infants were in attendance at the center for 14 months and 27 of them moved into the center's toddler program, making follow-up observations possible.

The lead caregiver (myself) and secondary caregiver were consistent for the first four years of the five year period. By the fourth year, the tertiary caregiver became consistent and, as a result, only the same three adults had daily contact with the infants. This constancy of caregivers facilitated a calm atmosphere. The caregivers spent much of the day sitting on the floor observing the infants. The philosophy of care was one of self-development and freedom of movement based on the teachings of Magda Gerber.

There were no infant containers * (i.e., restraining devices into which a child is inserted) in the room, and interaction between infants was not only allowed but encouraged. Containerization prevents social interaction because the containers inhibit access of the infants to one another.

Three month old infants are very interested in the actions of their peers but do not initiate overt actions toward them. They are just content to watch. By four months, most infants lying next to each other on the floor will reach out to investigate each other. They will occasionally hold hands or coo at each other. If the caregiver tickles one, the other will patiently wait and anticipate his/her turn. At this point, the infants are not only beginning to respond to their own name but also to react to their peers' names.

Caregiver:    "Here is Selena's nose."     "Here is Marti's nose." (Selena looks at Marti.)

This interest in watching their peers continues throughout the first two years. However, the frequency of interaction with each other increases as the time together increases.

having fun together

Friends are people who spontaneously seek the company of one another (Lewis, 1975). Many of our infants constantly seek the company of their special friend(s) and are distressed when that friend is absent. Lewis (1975) notes that separation anxieties from friends may be heightened when access to the mother is restricted. This causes one to question if infants form friendships in daycare to substitute for maternal love.

Lewis (1975) also tells us that some children simply do not have good friends. This is something worth keeping in mind when looking at infant friendships. Developmentally, social interaction may not yet be appealing.

Papousek (1974) found that infants, in a majority of instances, smiled at themselves when seen on TV. They also exhibited keen interest in other infants on the screen. I found that the infants in my study smiled and were excited to see their peers on video. James (17 months) squealed and broke into a delighted grin when he recognized his friend Ben on the TV. He ran around the room in a circle and returned to watch more. The sequence he was watching was very exciting. James had moved into the toddler room at 15 months, leaving 13 month old Ben behind in the infant room. Four weeks later, Ben entered the toddler room for a visit. The video sequence records the first meeting of these two young friends after a four week separation. There are squeals of recognition and tentative touching followed by hugs and kisses. These infants had been together daily for eleven months prior to this separation. James viewed this video four weeks after the taping, and his excitement at seeing his old friend was renewed.

Following the video taping sessions, the tapes would be aired in the infant room for review by the infant staff. The babies often interrupted their work to go to the TV and watch. There was much excited chatter as they saw themselves and each other.

During the course of five years, it was repeatedly observed that infants as young as eight months instigate play with their friends. Lewis (1975) observes that "certain types of behaviors are more likely to occur between equal age peers..." however, I found that developmental level, not age, determined friendships. At one time, there were four 13 month infants in the group who were all walkers and very mobile. Jason, a nine month old boy, joined the group and within one month had become a fully accepted playmate of the older infants. Jason was an early walker and was totally capable of interacting with the older ones.

While infants are still "floor babies" they are quite naturally limited in their socialization attempts. They tend to be fearful of crawlers and walkers who loom in and out of their line of vision and occasionally bump into them. Once mobile, they are able to seek out playmates that attract them.

Eight month old Peter sits and laughs at the antics of eleven month old Nathan. Soon, both boys are reacting to each other with joyful belly laughs. Other mobile babies come to see what is happening, eventually joining the fun.

Natasha (14 months) likes to play peek-a-boo under the double-decker combination playpen/maze. She is always able to entice another baby to play with her. She has taught several of the younger babies how to use this piece of equipment and they now get others to join them there in play.

Our observations have shown many instances of infants caring for each other. Fourteen month old Corinne would consistently put pacifiers into the mouths of younger, fussing infants. Other babies offer favorite blankets or transition objects to their owners in order to soothe their crying. Hands become liberated at the onset of walking because they are no longer required for crawling. Often babies at this stage offer each other toys and food. They will even try to feed bottles to younger ones. Their increased mobility and helpfulness further enhances socialization.

Greenspan (1985) says that interactive play does not usually occur until a group of children gets to know each other. I have just begun working with a group of seven infants, all of whom simultaneously entered a new center. Initial social contacts between infants occurred as early as the second day. By the end of the second week, friendships were already forming and interactive play occurred. The infants involved in this activity are a 13 month old girl walker, 13 and 11 month old boy pre-walkers and an eight month old boy crawler. The girl has assumed the role of leader and offers toys and food to the boys. The two older boys will be walking soon. An eight month old girl "floor baby" watches the others with interest. She will be ready to join in interactive play as soon as she is developmentally able. It will be fascinating to note the impact of the new dynamics of this group on their socialization.

It is my conclusion that infants raised together in daycare do socialize at a much earlier age than previously believed. Socialization with peers occurs as early as four months. This includes both verbal and visual forms of communication.

As the infant grows developmentally he/she relates to peers in a more organized way by showing concern and providing care for each other. By 12 months infants will interact in play, initiating games and instigating action.

Stone, Smith and Murphy (1973) say,"From our perch overlooking the vast new landscape of infancy, a landscape thrown up like a new volcanic island in the past decade and a half, we have come not only to marvel at how much new information has been produced but also to see how badly it needs to be digested... particularly needed now is research that links and relates specific, sometimes atomistic findings" (p.9).

Socialization amongst infants is a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, infants rarely spent time in close proximity with each other. Research thus far has been done in laboratory settings, which are unauthentic environments for children. Infants studied there do not exhibit the same behaviors as those studied in natural environments where they are both familiar and comfortable with the caregivers, surroundings and their peers.

Infant daycare is becoming a growing factor in American life. It is important for infant educarers to understand the socialization abilities and needs of infants in order to help provide the best care possible.

CONTAINERS -  The term "CONTAINER" was coined by Phyllis Porter. This term, and its variations (containerization, containerize, containment etc.), refers to the mobility restriction placed upon the infant. The infant's ability to naturally and freely move about is curtailed by such devices as "swings", "walkers", etc. These devices can actually HARM an infant's natural muscular-skeletal development and should NEVER be utilized. In point of fact, they should NEVER have been invented in the first place.

Author / Researcher Note:
This research was done over the 5 year interval between 1991 and 1996. Before putting these data onto the "Educarer World of Infants" website, I reviewed it and found it still to be very up-to-date. Children in regular attendance at play groups also develop these friendships.


Gesell, A. (1952). Infant Development. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers.

Greenspan, S. (1985). First Feelings: Milestones in the Emotional Development of Your Baby and Child From Birth to Four. New York: Viking.

Hanna, E., & Meltzoff, A. (1993). Peer Imitation by Toddlers in Laboratory, Home, and Day-Care Contexts: Implications for Social Learning and Memory. Developmental Psychology, 29 (4), 701-710.

Lewis, M., & Feinman, S. (1991). Social Influences and Socialization in Infancy. New York & London: Plenum Press.

Lewis, M., & Rosenblum, L.A. (Eds.). (1975). Friendships and Peer Relationships. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Lewis, M., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (1979). Social Cognition and the Acquisition of Self. New York & London: Plenum Press.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self and Society From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Papousek, H., & Papousek, M. (1974). Mirror-image and Self-recognition in Young Infants: I. A New Method of Experimental Analysis. Developmental Psychology. 7, 149-157.

Shirley, M. M. (1933). The First Two Years: A Study of 25 Babies. Vol. 2. Institute of Child Welfare Monograph Series. VII. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stein, D. N. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.

Stone, L. J., Smith, H. T, & Murphy, L. B. (Eds.). (1973). The Competent Infant: Readings and Commentary. New York: Basic Books.

Thoman, E. (1979). Origins of the Infant's Social Responsiveness. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Whaley, K. L., & Rubenstein, T. S. (1994). How Toddlers 'Do' Friendship: A Descriptive Analysis of Naturally Occurring Friendships in a Group Child Care Setting. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11, 383-400.

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