Why everyone is talking about the 'Still Face Mum.'

Raise your hands if you've ever responded to your child with a quick, expressionless glance of acknowledgment while keeping one eye fixed on your phone? 

If we're all being honest, most parents would have their hands up. Babies, toddlers, and kids of all ages demand a lot of attention, and sometimes, we just need to zone out with some mindless scrolling. It's normal. 

The problem is, zoning out can render us expressionless, or if we're anything like Ben Affleck, we may even look a little annoyed.  

Watch: 10 Signs Your Parent Is A Narcissist. Post continues below.

Video via Psych2Go.

It might seem harmless, especially for burnt-out parents of babies who can feel as though they're spending their days killing time until the next feed or nap time. 

But according to a short video that's gone viral on TikTok, our 'still' faces may be causing our offspring unnecessary distress, as they fight to get our attention. 

According to the video, attention is deemed received by babies, by the expressions on our faces – smiles, wide eyes, cooing etc. 

While older kids can basically tell us when they feel they're being ignored (although they often don't), babies can't do much other than cry and scream. At the same time, babies don't have language, so, according to the video, if we throw them a glance or a couple of words, while our face remains expressionless, their perception is that they're being ignored.


♬ original sound - sragvi

The video, posted by premedical student Sragvi Pattanaik, is based on an experiment, conducted in the 1970s, called the Still Face Mum Experiment, which essentially concluded that active interaction with an infant was vital to their development and thriving.

In other words, the more we 'tune out' to babies via our faces, the bigger their internal responses, which can set them up for negative attachment styles in adulthood. The mental load on parents, especially mums, is real. 

What is the Still Face Mum Experiment?

The experiment took place in 1978 in a laboratory setting. It was simple – a baby sits in a seat facing her mum, who talks, smiles and makes eye contact. The baby responds by smiling and goo-gah-ing happily. 

After a period of time the mum looks away. When she looks back towards the baby, her face remains still – unsmiling and not talking. The expressionless face seems to prompt a proactive response from the baby, who begins to intensify the smiling and goo-gah-ing that previously prompted a similar response from her mum. 

The mother's expression remains neutral, which seems to trigger another response in the baby, a negative one. The baby in the experiment starts wailing, waving her arms around and slumping in her seat. 

Eventually the mother returns her attention to the baby, smiles, and recommences active interaction. The baby is distressed, so it takes a little while, but ultimately he returns to his happy state. 


The experiment was presented by Edward Tronick. He described the phenomenon accordingly: "The infant, after three minutes of attempting to interact with a non-responsive mother, rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression." 

What does it mean?

The experiment begged the question: what happens when a mother routinely disengages with her baby, or frequently changes between active interaction and still face?

Obviously, no one can be engaged all the time, so the experiment was focused on longer periods of still-face, not a few minutes here or there to take a phone call or go to the loo. 

What it did appear to demonstrate, was that attunement and interaction are essential to a baby's development, even in those first few years of life. 

According to the study, not only can it impact how a baby develops in terms of emotional regulation but it can also influence adult relationships. In other words, their future attachment styles, which include secure attachment, and the three types of insecure attachment: anxious-avoidant, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. 

The modern-day response.

Interestingly, the video prompted hundreds of comments, with many of those reflecting on their own childhood and how the lack of emotion their own mum showed them may have impact them in adulthood. 


"My childhood was a very long still face experiment with my mother," wrote one user. 

"Well I guess this is some of the reason I developed bipolar disorder, because I don't remember affection at all with my mum," claimed another. 

And: "Now I know why my mum kept saying that my twin and I prefer our dad as babies. She hardly smiled, even now, but our dad is very expressive."

Is the Still Face Mum phenomenon actually relevant today?

The experiment might seem like yet another way to hold mums responsible for anything and everything, while making them feel guilty for trying to get through those baby years. And yes, that's partly true. Let's face it, it's easier to be expressive when you're not burnt out from the mental load.

It's also easy to assume that in the modern world, phones and other technology mean more mums are offering their babies still faces as they grind through the day. 

But it's worth noting, mums of times gone by had books and television that may have also triggered a similar response. And they were just as exhausted. 

Either way, according to the experiment, all is not lost, even if you do find yourself zoning out now and again. Let us rejoice! In multiple versions of the experiment, with babies and children of varying ages, conducted over years, mothers were able to successfully reengage their children with relative ease, and watch those little faces light up once again. 

Feature Image: TikTok/@sragvipattanaik

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