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In 1975, Edward Tronick and his team introduced the “Still Face Experiment” at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. They observed a phenomenon where an infant, following three minutes of interaction with a non-responsive and expressionless mother, quickly becomes solemn and cautious. The infant repeatedly tries to restore the usual reciprocal interaction pattern, but when unsuccessful, withdraws. The infant then turns his face and body away from the mother, displaying a withdrawn and hopeless facial expression. This discovery continues to be one of the most widely confirmed findings in the field of developmental psychology.

The Face-to-Face Still-Face (FFSF) paradigm (Tronick et al., 1978) is a well-known and validated procedure to assess socio-emotional regulation in infants facing a social stressor. The study investigates early mother-infant reciprocity, focusing on the behaviors exhibited by three-week-old infants in optimal face-to-face interactions with their mothers. Through microanalysis of videotaped interactions, the researchers observed a set of interactive behaviors characterized by smooth circular movements of the infant’s body, rhythmic face-to-face attention, and cyclical patterns of approach-withdrawal. The infant demonstrates a clear expectancy for rhythmic interaction with the caregiver, and deviations from this pattern, such as the presentation of a still, unresponsive face by the mother, elicit visible concern and attempts by the infant to re-engage. The study suggests that this attentional cycling may be diagnostic of optimal mother-infant interactions and is not present in more disturbed interactions (Brazelton, 1975).

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Brazelton, T. B., Tronick, E., Adamson, L., Als, H., & Wise, S. (1975). Early mother-infant reciprocityCiba Foundation symposium, (33), 137–154. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470720158.ch9

Tronick, E., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S., & Brazelton, T. B. (1978). The infant’s response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interactionJournal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry17(1), 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-7138(09)62273-1