A Systems view of mother-infant face-to-face communication

Beatrice Beebe, Daniel Messinger, Lorraine E. Bahrick, Amy Margolis, Karen A. Buck, Henian Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


Principles of a dynamic, dyadic systems view of mother-infant face-to-face communication, which considers self- and interactive processes in relation to one another, were tested. The process of interaction across time in a large low-risk community sample at infant age 4 months was examined. Split-screen videotape was coded on a 1-s time base for communication modalities of attention, affect, orientation, touch, and composite facial-visual engagement. Time-series approaches generated self- and interactive contingency estimates in each modality. Evidence supporting the following principles was obtained: (a) Significant moment-to-moment predictability within each partner (self-contingency) and between the partners (interactive contingency) characterizes mother-infant communication. (b) Interactive contingency is organized by a bidirectional, but asymmetrical, process: Maternal contingent coordination with infant is higher than infant contingent coordination with mother. (c) Self-contingency organizes communication to a far greater extent than interactive contingency. (d) Self- and interactive contingency processes are not separate; each affects the other in communication modalities of facial affect, facialvisual engagement, and orientation. Each person's self-organization exists in a dynamic, homoeostatic (negative feedback) balance with the degree to which the person coordinates with the partner. For example, those individuals who are less facially stable are likely to coordinate more strongly with the partner's facial affect and vice versa. Our findings support the concept that the dyad is a fundamental unit of analysis in the investigation of early interaction. Moreover, an individual's self-contingency is influenced by the way the individual coordinates with the partner. Our results imply that it is not appropriate to conceptualize interactive processes without simultaneously accounting for dynamically interrelated self-organizing processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)556-571
Number of pages16
JournalDevelopmental psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016


  • Dynamic systems
  • Mother-infant face-to-face communication
  • Self- and interactive contingency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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