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  • The Mirror Staged: Images of Babies in Baby Books
  • Perry Nodelman (bio)

Most of the books available in the “Baby Books” section of my local bookstore are sturdy, short board books printed on durable cardboard stock. This format is not surprising, for they are intended for the youngest of readers/viewers, those unlikely to understand that books are not intended as substitutes for weapons or teething rings. Browsing in that section recently, however, I was surprised by something else that so many of them had in common. A lot of them consisted merely of images of babies, some in cartoons, but mostly in colour photographs. Why were so many adults interested in providing pictures of babies for baby readers, and why would they think that a baby might want or should want to look at pictures of other babies? Is there an assumption that babies looking at these books see someone like themselves, or is it that they see the other babies in the pictures as significantly other? Or is it somehow both at the same time?

A body of psychological research concludes that even very young infants have a special interest in faces. In 1998, Francesca Simion and her colleagues found that “in newborns there is a preference for facelike patterns over nonfacelike patterns” (1399). In the same year, Alan Slater and his colleagues suggested that “newborn infants have been found to learn about individual faces very rapidly,” and that “the newborn infant can come into the world with some innately specified representation of faces” (266). More specifically, according to Jon Bartrip and his colleagues in 2001, “We can thus conclude that neonates have learnt something about their mother’s head or head and face during the first few days of life” (220)—although I assume here that it is not specifically a mother the baby identifies but perhaps a frequent caregiver. In either case, however, logic might then suggest that the images baby books offer should be those of the caregivers that interest infants. In offering, instead, images of infants like themselves, these baby books might be in the business of encouraging and developing a new form of egocentricity—a move away from a self-centred but not [End Page 13] very self-aware concern for needing nurturing to a new and more conscious awareness of someone like oneself as an appropriate centre of attention and deserving nurture.

That, too, might accord with psychological research about the relationship between mirror images and self-awareness. According to Philippe Rochat and Tricia Striano in 2002, “Much research documents the emergence of behaviors by 14 to 18 months that indicate explicit self-awareness in mirrors or any other reflecting surfaces” (35). Studies of mirror self-recognition (MSR) confirm that, “by 4 months of age, infants showed signs of self–other discrimination in specular images” (Rochat and Striano 42), but intriguingly, a 2003 study by Mark Nielsen, Cheryl Dissanayake, and Yoshi Kashima also showed that “prior to the second year (i.e., before the onset of MSR) infants prefer to look at images depicting the faces of same-aged peers rather than images depicting their own faces” (214)—that is, at faces like the ones in these baby books. Rochat and Striano’s research supported their hypothesis “that 9-month-olds who begin to understand others as intentional agents of communication . . . would perceive the specular image of others as intentional and communicative, and, hence, as socially more engaging compared with the self” (42), whereas Nielsen, Dissanayake, and Kashima concluded that, while infants between four and nine months asked to look at mirror images of themselves and others “orient to the peer-image, . . . investigation did not find this preference in infants aged from 9 to 24 months. Rather, at 18 and 24 months the infants oriented to the selfimage” (223). A further complication is the conclusion by Mary L. Courage and her colleagues in 2004 that “[c]hildren’s ability to identify themselves from an array of same age, same sex peers was later to develop than their ability to recognize their mirror images” (519). The business of self-recognition and its connections with, and difference from, recognition of others is complex—as...


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pp. 13-39
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