Baby Watchers: Have You Seen This Mysterious Phenomenon?

April 19, 2009 at 3:35 am (By Amba)

My 33-year-old nephew Matt, a new father, described watching his baby daughter’s face “scroll through” the full repertoire of human expressions and emotions — in her sleep.  And only in her sleep.

I’ve seen this too! But thirty years ago, when my niece, Matt’s cousin Paloma, was a baby in the first few months of life.  Awake, she had about four basic, dazed expressions; she looked the way you might expect a newly minted person to look — foggy, vague, not yet fully here.  But when she slept, her face knew the Greek comedy and tragedy masks, and so much more:  hilarity, amusement, disgust, despondency, sly cynicism, wistfulness, ennui — sophisticated, seasoned expressions that you’d think an old Frenchwoman would have had to earn by six or seven decades of hard living.  Non, je ne regrette rien!

What is this??  What stage of sleep does it correspond to, what’s going on in the brain?  Is the baby dreaming, or in deeper, dreamless sleep?  How would a neurologist or a child-development expert explain it?  I’m not sure they could.  It’s been shown that emotions are inseparable from their physical expression:  to make the face is to have the feeling, and vice versa.  So we’re hardwired for emotions we have yet to grow into?  Expressions we regard as exquisitely cultural and social, like full-blown language, are actually biological?  What?

A baby that can manage at most a wail, an unfocused stare, and a goofy, convulsive smile when awake appears, in its sleep, to rehearse the dramas of a lifetime.  I wonder if this was one of the things that inclined people to believe in reincarnation.  A sleeping baby lets its mask slip, reveals its old soul, remembers its long, rich lives and tumultuous experience.

Have you seen this?


  1. Freeman Hunt said,

    Yes! We loved watching this each time our first son would slip off into sleep, and now we’re enjoying it again with son number two. It really is fascinating.

  2. karen said,

    Wow- i’m hearing new voices!! It’s going to take a little getting used to- as it’s kinda weird to absorb after so many yrs of hearing only one voice-amba’s- but, i’m open. And, intrigued.

    My name came up in the box, not my new handle form wordpress- i wonder how THIS is going to finish out. Anyway- this post is so-poetic. I’ve still got my ear tuned to you, amba:0) Love you.

  3. karen said,

    So, wh did i sign up at wordpress, again? This worked out just fine. And, it seems i’m still ME.

    Just wanted to add that a friend went into labour and delievered- 3 MONTHS early- a 2# baby girl. That was a month ago- she’s gained .5#, so please keep her health and growth in your thoughts so she can keep gaining. Her name is Allison(awesome name, eh- Alli?:0)) Not sure how it IS spelled. The Mom pumps breastmilk, which is tube fed into the child(hmmmmmm- should still be in the womb– fetus?)and had no trouble producing enough at such an early and surprised duedate.

    Pretty cool, to me.

  4. rodjean said,

    I never noticed this, but nearly complete lack of knowledge does not stop my positing a theory.

    The infant is not experiencing grave dramatic insights. Our facial muscles have a lot of plasticity. One of the first things we learn while awake is expressions which bring positive reinforcement. Eventually, we learn an entire repetoire of stereotyped expressions that relate to different circumstances.

  5. lfineaux said,

    rodjean – interesting… while our expressions may be fully developed at birth, the underlying emotions are awaiting feedback for proper attachment?

  6. amba12 said,

    Yes, but there seems to be no learning involved here, and the infant is not receiving positive reinforcement while awake for facial expressions it makes in its sleep!

  7. Alison said,

    When mine were infants, I think I was always too tired to spend much time watching them sleep. I do remember seeing them look scared in their sleep and resisting the urge to wake them and comfort them.

  8. realpc said,

    It’s probably just reincarnation. Occam’s razor.

  9. rodjean said,

    It’s probably just gas. Occam’s razor.

  10. Peter Hoh said,

    I recall reading that babies are able to make a wide variety of vocal sounds. Over time, they repeat the ones they hear and drop the ones they don’t. After a while, the babbling of a baby raised in an English-speaking household will be quite different from the babbling of a baby raised in a Chinese-speaking household.

    Perhaps facial expressions are like that. We are born hard-wired to produce any number of facial expressions, but the muscle control necessary to produce the various expressions is not developed yet. While the baby sleeps, somehow, the muscles run through their hard-wired expressions.

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