How Long Will Everyone Think Your Baby is Adorable?

Posted in Chocolate Babies, parenting, pregnancy, psychology by jenapincott on November 26, 2011

When our baby was six months old, my husband and I couldn’t walk down the street without stopping to accept a compliment. Baby was something of a local celebrity or a minor deity. Free pizza and donuts, the choicest table in the restaurant, a bracelet, stickers, sunglasses, a spot at the front of the line — these were some of the offerings made by the infant’s admirers. Ten months have now passed, and now she’s a toddler. To me, she’s as cute as ever, and she still receives a lot of kisses and waves from strangers. But, we’ve got to face it — she doesn’t attract the same the solicitous stop-in-the-street simpering that she did in her first year. How much longer will it be before everyone stops thinking she’s so adorable?

This question happens to be the subject of a new study on children’s faces. A trio of psychologists— Lu Zhu Luo, Hong Li, and Kang Lee — in China, and at the University of Toronto, recruited 60 men and women and showed then a large sample of children’s faces ranging from infants to 6-and-and-half-year-olds. The participants were asked to rate each face’s likeability (How much do you like the face?) and attractiveness (How attractive is the face?). The researchers wanted to know if younger kids would be given higher attractiveness ratings than older kids — and, if so, at what age does the cut-off happen from over-the-top adorable to merely cute?

The answer? Yes, it’s as expected. Men and women rated infants as cuter than toddlers, who, in turn are rated as cuter than young children. The big drop-off in cuteness appears to happen somewhere between preschool and kindergarten. The researchers identified it as approximately age 4 ½.

What happens to school-age kids?

Their facial structure changes, according to the Luo and his colleagues. Infants have a special set of features, such as a protruding forehead, a large head, a round face, big eyes, and a small nose or mouth. As a species, we have evolved to be attracted to babyish features and find them adorable. These cues make us feel soft and protective, whether or not we’re biologically related — which increases the likelihood of the baby’s survival. (Indeed, studies have found that infants that have tiny eyes, flat foreheads, and square faces, for instance, are less likely to receive attention.) Pleasingly, our tendency to prefer infantile faces even extends to infant faces of other races.

Facial cranial growth is gradual, as is a child’s independence from constant care-giving. Children’s faces lose some of their universal appeal right around the age that they don’t need it anymore to (merely) survive — somewhere around kindergarten-age. Incidentally, this interval — four to five years — is the same as natural birth spacing — when our foremothers would become pregnant with their next baby.

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