There’s a reason adults find babies so completely irresistible. The traits that make babies cute, or kinderschema, trigger parents and non-parents to want to nurture and protect the little tykes until they mature and are able to fend for themselves. Our attraction to cute infant faces isn’t just science, it’s evolution at work. But there’s a dark side to all that baby cuteness. A new study suggests that people react differently to babies with deformities or babies who differ from the symmetry that allows us to find a baby or person cute. And ignoring kids who don’t fit the cuteness norm can have huge implications on their cognitive and social development, according to research.
Science has long proven that adults are drawn to adorable infants. Whether it’s their squishy little cheeks, tiny chins, or big, gorgeous eyes — or, more likely, a combination of all three. But an adorable baby can make parents, family members, and even total strangers pretty much go weak in the knees. It’s a concept that advertisers use all the time: ads with cute kids increase the “cuteness” of products from cars to computers, and make adults more likely to open their wallets.
But a new scientific review published in Trends In Cognitive Science this month found several studies that point to potential harm when adults show preference based on an infant’s physical traits.
Adults more likely play with and talk to babies with traditionally “cute” physical traits, but their brains don’t react the same way when presented with a baby with facial or physical abnormalities, according to the study. A Vox article on the new report said the authors pointed out potential harm for babies born with cleft lips and palates, including “adverse outcomes in child development, including cognitive problems”:
These problems can at least partly be attributed to early disruptions in mother-child interactions, specifically a lack of all-important maternal responsiveness.
According to Vox, the authors implied that mothers aren’t as responsive to babies who don’t fit the cuteness norm. But it’s hardly the case that mothers — or fathers, for that matter — simply check out of parenting if their baby isn’t quite as squishy or rosy-cheeked as the kid in the next bassinet. The new findings could mean that parents of babies born with physical differences simply need more support to develop empathy and attachment bonds.
In fact, other studies have shown that women are more sensitive to cuteness and more likely to perceive their own infant as cute. And facial cuteness isn’t the only thing that adults respond to, according to the new findings. Vox reported that the authors said sound and smell can help adults bond to babies and override the tendency to discriminate.
Still, while those little cherub faces can draw us in, after a while they lose their power. According to Vox, the authors concluded that “both adults and children pay more attention to infants' faces than to older children's faces, suggesting the power of cuteness in young children's faces fades as children mature.”
Sadly, not even that adorable infant cuteness can last forever. Sigh.