Like riding a bike: Parents can steer infants to sustain attention

May 17, 2016
Doctors of optometry should encourage parents to see eye-to-eye during playtime with infants.

Parents—in partnership with doctors of optometry—can help develop their infants' attention early and lay the foundation for learning on their own later.

It's just like riding a bike, according to authors of a new study on sustained attention in infants published April 28 in the online journal Current Biology. If you hold the bike upright long enough—so a child learns to balance—they are soon peddling on their own.

"In my opinion, this study is very significant for our patients and provides a chance for earlier identification and intervention," says Glen Steele, O.D., chair of AOA's InfantSEE® and Children's Vision Committee. "This study brings to greater prominence the areas we evaluate every day in our testing of patients at every age."

In the study, researchers at Indiana University recorded data from the gazes of 36 parent-child groups playing with toys. The study, "The Social Origins of Sustained Attention in One-Year-Old Human Infants," was conducted by Chen Yu, Ph.D., and Linda Smith, Ph.D.

Among the researchers' findings:

  • The infants extended their sustained attention when following a parent's gaze at the same toy.
  • Parent-child ocular interplay influenced the development of sustained attention.

"Using head-mounted eye tracking to record moment-by-moment gaze data from both parents and infants, we found that when the social partner (parent) visually attended to the object to which infant attention was directed, infants, after the parent's look, extended their duration of visual attention to the object," the researchers write. "Looks to the same object by two social partners is a well-studied phenomenon known as joint attention, which has been shown to be critical to early learning and to the development of social skills."

They add, "The present findings implicate joint attention in the development of the child's own sustained attention and thus challenge the current understanding of the origins of individual differences in sustained attention, providing a new and potentially malleable developmental pathway to the self-regulation of attention."

The foundation for a child's ability to self-regulate his or her attention is typically laid by an infant's first birthday. From there, the ability to sustain attention grows and infants are gradually able to gaze at objects without getting easily distracted. A study published in 2008 linked sustained attention to language development, saying that an infant's ability to joint focus gave them "an advantage in the word-learning game that has measurable effects through their second year."

This new study follows a string of articles over the past year that cite eye movement or eye movement control as a marker in child development, including social behavior, attention deficit and autism.

The doctor's role in child development

The IU researchers write: "... Day-in and day-out interactions with mature social partners (parents) that stretch the duration of the child's concentration on an object may, over time, strengthen the internal networks responsible for the self-regulation of attention.

"By analogy, just as a parent may hold onto and balance a two-wheel bike for a young rider, letting go so that the young rider experiences (at first, a product of the body's inertia) balancing a bike on their own, so may sustained joint attention help infants' attentional systems experience and then discover the means to concentrate on their own."

The study supports the need for early diagnosis, says Dr. Steele, who is also professor  of pediatric optometry at Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee. His practice emphasis is vision care of infants and young children.

That's where doctors of optometry come in, given their role as primary eye care providers.

"Doctors of optometry should continue their careful and consistent evaluation of eye movements in infants and young children to ensure the babies are developing the ability to look and sustain attention to people," Dr. Steele adds. "They should also encourage parents to put down their electronic devices and engage in activities with their young ones in order to develop attention. Vision and development should be an active/interactive process and not a passive process. It's all for the good of the child."

The AOA follows all research closely, including studies on sustained attention in infants; however, more research is needed regarding sustained attention in infants and visual health.

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