Beyond the eyes: How do visually impaired infants interact with their caregivers?

Much of what we know about the early social and affective interactions that occur between infants and their parents largely rely on visual cues: detecting emotional expressions, following gaze, anticipating gestures, coordinating motor outputs in time, etc. But what happens when visual information is not available? This is a normal condition of development for infants with visual impairment or blind. While we are studying specific dimensions of emotional connections and socio-cognitive development in these infants (see the Projects page), we performed a literature review to capitalize from previous research in the field.

Unfortunately, the study of the early caregiver-infant interaction in the presence of blindness or low-vision is sparse. Most of studies are dated back to the '80s or the '90s and the publication timeline suggests that there is no increasing trend in the researchers' interest in this topic. Yet, by studying how the early affective, social, and cognitive attunement develops in infants with sensory deficits we may acquire at least two set of critical knowledge. This is what we learned from this literature review.

First, visually impaired infants may provide less clear social signals to their caregivers and the timing of contingent interactive exchanges may be completely different from typically developing counterparts. By deepening our knowledge of alternative channels involved in the successful co-regulation of interactive rhythms between parents and visually impaired infants we may contribute to improve our theories of the role of parenting in the emotional and socio-cognitive development of infants, even of those who do not present sensory deficits.

Second, parents may appear more intrusive or remote compared to caregivers of typically developing infants. This information is crucial to understand the experience of parents who may be frustrated in their attempts to understand the inner world of their blind infants. Also, by accumulating new evidence we can provide clinicians and therapists with evidence-based support to smarter interventions to empower parenting and sustaining infants' achievement of developmental milestones.

This research is part of a conjoint scientific collaboration among our group, the Center of Child Neuro-Ophthalmology of the IRCCS Mondino Foundation, Pavia, Italy, directed by dr. Sabrina Signorini, and the research team led by Monica Gori at the Italian Institute of Technology, Genova, Italy. Our research on the early interaction between mothers and their visually impaired infants is ongoing and we hope to deliver brand new findings as soon as possible.

Stay tuned!

Full citation: Serena Grumi, Giulia Cappagli, Giorgia Aprile, Eleonora Mascherpa, Monica Gori, Livio Provenzi, Sabrina Signorini (2021) Togetherness, beyond the eyes: A systematic review on the interaction between visually impaired children and their parents. Infant Behavior and Development, 64, 101590.