Caregiver-infant interactions in humans: reciprocity and interactional synchrony.

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Definition of Attachment (AO1, Description):

Attachment is a two-way, enduring, emotional tie between two people (usually and infant and their primary caregiver). An attachment is usually shown in the behaviour between two people. An attachment between an infant and primary caregiver is usually reciprocal (responding to the action of another with a similar action). This attachment (tie) usually develops in set stages within a fairly set timescale.

Reciprocity and Interactional Synchrony (AO1, Description):

A description of how two people interact. Mother-infant interaction is reciprocal in that both mother and infant respond to each other’s signal and each elicits a response from the other. Babies have periods of ‘alert phases’ and signal to their mother that they are ready for interaction. Mother’s typical pick up on this signal and respond two-thirds of the time. From around three months the interactions tend to be increasingly frequent and involves close attention to each other’s verbal signals and facial expressions. An interaction is reciprocal when each person responds to the other and elicits a response from them.

Interactional Synchrony Definition (AO1, Description): Mother and baby reflect both the actions and the emotions of the other and do this in a co-ordinated (synchronised way).

Research into Interactional Synchrony: Meltzoff and Moore (1997) (AO1, Description):

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Aim: To investigate reciprocity between infants and their caregivers.


  • Controlled observations using 6 babies (aged 12 to 27 days old) and 12 babies (aged 16 to 21 days old).
  • Babies were exposed to 4 different stimuli.
  • Three facial gestures (e.g. sticking tongue out)
  • One manual gesture (e.g. waving fingers)
  • The baby’s response to these gestures was observed.Interactional Synchrony Picture
  • The babies actions were video recorded.
  • An independent observer (who had no knowledge of what the infant had just seen) was asked to note all instances of tongue protrusion and head movements using a number of behaviour categories.
  • Each observer scored the tapes twice (allowing for both intra-observer and inter-rater reliability to be assessed).

Findings: The results indicated that babies aged 12 to 27 days old could imitate both facial expressions and manual gestures.

Conclusions: Meltzoff and Moore concluded that the ability to imitate serves as an important building block for later social and cognitive development.

Evaluation of Research into Caregiver-Infant Interactions (Evaluation, AO3):

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  • POINT: A strength is that controlled observations often capture fine details as they are generally well-controlled procedures. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, both the mother and the infant are filmed, often from multiple angles, this ensures that fine details of behaviour can be recorded and later analysed. Furthermore, babies are unaware that they are being observed so their behaviour does not change in response to controlled observations which is generally a problem for observational research. EVALUATION: This is positive because it means that in general the research has high internal validity – it is measuring what it is intending to measure.


  • POINT: However, observations don’t tell us the purpose if synchrony and reciprocity. EVIDENCE/EXAMPLE: For example, Fieldman (2012) points out that synchrony (and by implication reciprocity) simply describe behaviours that occur at the same time. EVALUATION: This is a weakness because these are robust phenomena in the sense that they can be reliably observed, but this may not be particularly useful as it does not tell us their purpose.


  • POINT: It is hard to know what is happening when observing infants. EXAMPLE/EVIDENCE: For example, is the infant’s imitation of the adult conscious and deliberate or a coincidence? What is being observed is merely hand movements or changes in expressions. It is extremely difficult to be certain, based on these observations, what is taking place from the infant’s perspective.EVALUATION: This is a weakness because we cannot really know for certain that behaviours seen in mother-infant interactions have special meaning.