3 Good Reasons Not to Obsess Over Eye Contact

PeyesNew research reported last week shows that babies as young as 2 months old show signs of autism, based on their eye tracking and how much attention they paid to their parents’ faces. The 2- to 6-month-olds who gazed at faces the least had the most severe autism by 3 years. That’s a big wow. Or…it can also be seen as one more thing for exhausted new parents to worry about.

Time for a deep breath:

1. Reality check: You can’t tell by yourself, not that early.

Buried in the middle of the New York Times report on the research (in the journal Nature) is this: “The eye-tracking differences are not something parents and pediatricians would be able to perceive without the technology and expertise of an autism clinic.” In other words, while differences seem to show up as early as 8 weeks, they’re not visible to the naked eye.

So far, these are the warning signs parents can watch for — mainly in the second half of the first year of life:

  • No big smiles or happy expressions by 6 months
  • No social back-and-forthing (you smile, I smile; you coo, I coo) by 9 months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No waving bye-bye by 12 months
  • Loss of babbling or social skills at any age.

(See Autism Speaks for more signs and videos, as well as what to do if you’re worried.)

2. Reality check: All babies look all around — and that’s good.

I know a new mom who worried about bonding whenever her hungry baby shut his eyes during feedings instead of making the eye contact she’d heard was key. Another noticed her baby sometimes looks at mobiles and lights as much as at her and Daddy. Is this a problem, for bonding, for autism, for anything?

The truth is, from birth, babies are drawn to faces. So gazing into your newborn’s eyes and talking during feedings is great for brain development and attachment. But — big but — a baby’s vision also gravitates to things that move, to bright and bold contrasting patterns, and to interesting noises. And sometimes, they need shut-eye. All that’s good for development, too!

Don’t worry if your baby doesn’t find you the most fascinating thing in the room (though, of course, she may be that to you!).

3. Reality check: This research is really good news.

Although it’s scary to worry about autism when your baby is so tiny, for most of us today, the worry is always there in the back of the mind, anyway.  Routine autism screenings now begin around the 18-month to 24-month well-child checkups. Most cases of autism are diagnosed between 3 and 5 years. But experts can now flag babies at risk (by the signs above) by late in the first year.

This trend to earlier identification is lifesaving because it leads to earlier interventions. Researchers now think that therapy begun well before the preschool years may be a key to altering what happens to kids at risk, or even to preventing autism — that was a verb ventured by one of the sources in the NYT article! — from developing, even after the risk factors appear. (The researchers didn’t see differences at birth, suggesting there’s a window of evolving change.)

The bottom line: Being the expert on your baby, and knowing what’s typical, helps you be more proactive, less panicky.