The mirror is an endless source of enjoyment for most babies. Early in the first year when you prop her up on those chubby little arms, your baby will most likely look wide-eyed at her refection and crack a drooly smile. As time goes on, she may have full-blown conversations or even make-out sessions with herself in the mirror. But at what point is she actually aware that the reflection is her and not some other tiny person with a big bald head?
To find this out, researchers use an elegant little test in which they dab a colored spot on the baby’s face and then let her loose in front of the mirror. If she touches the spot or tries to rub it off, she must know that the reflection she’s looking at is her own physical body. If she continues to babble, spurt and play as normal, she hasn’t fully grasped the concept. Most toddlers don’t pass this test until 18 to 24 months.
Parents are often surprised that this milestone comes at such a late stage. It seems that well before this, our babies have developed a full-blown relationship with their reflections. But recognizing yourself in the mirror is a major feat because it requires self-awareness, which, let’s face it, is one of the most sophisticated human abilities. We tend to gloss over this part of development, maybe because it’s not as easy to track as language or motor skills, but it’s one of your toddler’s biggest accomplishments.
Only around age two is a child really aware of himself as a separate physical and mental being – especially through the first year, babies experience themselves and their parents as part of the same entity. Age two is also when children start to show embarrassment, which requires a level of self-awareness, and refer to themselves using “I” or “me.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the brain region that produces self-awareness, but scientists think the frontal cortex (responsible for advanced functions like memory, planning, and attention) is involved – some believe a specific region called the anterior cingulate is important. The frontal lobes lag considerably behind other brain regions in development – until about eight months, your baby has almost no brain activity in this region. Once the lights go on in the frontal cortex, a baby starts to gradually accumulate all the advanced reasoning and awareness that makes us human (this continues through to teenagehood, so she’s got a long way to go).
Darwin was one of the first scientists to use the mirror test as a measure of sophisticated intellect. Orangutans and other great apes have been shown to recognize themselves, as have less obvious animals, like dolphins and elephants. Monkeys fail miserably – preferring to court, play, or attack their reflection. This is more or less our babies’ stance on the situation (minus the attack, hopefully), because until eighteen months, looking in the mirror really is a social activity. Wouldn’t you know it, that cutie pie just keeps showing up at the same time and place they do.
One of the ways babies develop self-awareness is through your relentless imitating of their many sounds and funny faces – something most of us do instinctively. Cooing and making faces back and forth while locking eyes isn’t just entertainment, it’s a key part of your baby learning that she exists on her own. She sees the familiar face she’s grown to love, but she also sees herself reflected in that face. Remember, as a parent, you are your baby’s first mirror.