Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 1989,30,90-101

Neonatal imitation of tongue protrusion and mouth
opening : Methodological aspects and evidence of early
individual differences
I Department of Psychology, Petinsylvania Stare University, University Park, PA, USA
2Dci,ccrtmenr of Psychology, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg. Sweden

Heimann, M., Nelson, K. E. and Schaller, J . : Neonatal imitation of tongue protrusion and
mouth opening: Methodological aspects and evidence of early individual differences. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 1989,30, 90-101.
The present work examines imitation of mouth opening and tongue protrusion in 32 full-term
infants at three different occasions: When the infants are two to three days, three weeks. and
three months old. The analysis focuses (1) on individual differences in imitative behaviour
and (2) on how to operationalize the infants' responses. The overall group analysis revealed
that imitation of tongue protrusion was statistically significant for both two- to three-day-old
and three-week-old infants but not when the children had become three months old. N o
statistically significant effect was observed for imitation of mouth opening. Two different
imitation indexes were constructed in order to assess individual differences in early imitative
behaviour. Results show that short-term stability in imitative tendencies cxists between the
first and second observation. The results further reveal that methodological factors must be
seriously considered when studying neonatal imitation: the overall imitation found for tongue
protrusion is demonstrated to be dependent on how the infants' responses are coded.

Key worcis: Infants. imitation, methodology. mouth opening, tongue protrusion.
Mikael Heimann, Department of Psychology, University of Gothenburg, Box 14158, S-400
20 Gothenburg, Sweden

Until recently, the capacity to imitate was thought of as a slowly growing skill (Guillaume,
1926/1971; Piaget, 1951/1962). However, since the mid-70s several reports have claimed that
imitation of tongue protrusion and mouth opening can be observed as early as during the first
weeks or month of life (Abravanel Rr Sigafoos, 1984; Dunkeld, 1978; Fontaine, 1984;
Heimann & Schaller, 1985; Ikegami, 1984; Jacobson, 1979; Kugiumutzakis, 1985; Maratos,
1986; Wolff, 1987).
1973; Meltzoff & Moore, 1977, 1 9 8 3 ~Vinter,
Evidence of neonatal imitation was also found in a study by Field et af.(1982) on the ability
to discriminate between facial expressions. Field ef al. conclude that their subjects (age: not
over 36 hr) were capable of discrimination and imitation of sad, happy, and surprised
expressions. In a subsequent study, Field ef al. (1983) replicated the findings for a sample
including term as well as preterm infants.
In a Swedish study (Heimann & Schaller, 1985), where imitation of tongue protrusion and
mouth opening were investigated, further indications of an early imitative capacity in threeweek-olds were found. The most important finding from this study is, however, the strong
individual variability, indicating that individual differences might be important factors in the
study of neonatal imitation. Similar observations were made by Field (1982) for imitation of
facial expressions.
Although the studies cited so far has been in favour of an early imitative capacity, a
substantial number of studies have failed to replicate these results. As an example, Hayes &

Scand J Psycho1 30 (1989)

Individrral dif"feretice.sin rieoniitnl imitation

Watson (1981) could not find any support for early imitation when they tried to confirm
Meltzoff & Moore's (1977) findings. Instead, they concluded that the imitative reactions
observed by others probably could be explained as artefacts.
Five additional studies, all reporting failures to replicate, have been published quite
recently (Kleiner & Fagan, 1984; Koepke etal., 1983a, b;Lewis& Sullivan. 1985; McKenzie &
Over 1983a,b; Neuberger et al., 1983). It is, however, of importance to note that McKenzie &
Over ( 1 9 8 3 ~ )reported that they observed similarities between the modelled behaviour and
that performed by the infant. In addition, Hayes & Watson (1981) and Lewis & Sullivan (1985)
also observed imitation-like responses among their infants.
Large differences in procedure exist among the studies published on neonatal imitation.
Methodological differences can be found in several areas: sample size, modelled behaviour,
method of presentation, length of the response period, definition and coding of responses, and
setting. This variation in methodology must be taken into consideration when comparing the
The diverse research findings make it plausible to conclude that both individual differences
and methodological aspects needs further investigation. The focus here will be on individual
differences among neonates and on the effect of using different definitions for coding the
infants' responses. These factors might be essential to the understanding and interpretation of
our knowledge of neonatal imitation to date.

Individrcat differences
Field (1982) stressed that, although her data favoured the conclusion that neonatal imitation is
a real phenomenon, she observed large individual differences among the infants' responses.
Roughly one-third of her sample displayed a strong tendency to imitate, one-third showed
weak imitative responses, and one-third displayed no imitation. From these observations she
hypothesized that individual differences in early imitation might be an early sign of personality
differences, dividing the children into two categories: internalizers and externalizers.
Field's observations were made while studying imitation of facial expressions like sad,
happy, and surprised. Only one of the reports on imitation of tongue protrusion and mouth
opening has explicitly pursued the question of individual differences. This question was
addressed by Heimann & Schaller (1985) reporting that several of their infants displayed
imitative responses as judged both by independent coders and the mothers' verbal report.
A first attempt to investigate further these individual differences noted for neonatal imitation was reported by Field et al. (1986). Their study investigated imitation of happy, sad, and
surprised expressions among 40 infants between two and six months of age. In short, they
found that imitation occurred over the whole time-period although they detected a decreasing
trend over time. Furthermore, they did find that 40% of their sample were consistently good
imitators and, also, that attentiveness (e.g. looking time) might be related to imitation.
These reports (Field, 1982; Field et al., 1986; Heimann & Schaller, 1985) offer a possible
explanation as t o why it has been so difficult to obtain consistent results. The tendency to
imitate might be strongly dependent on the child's personality characteristics and/or the
child's interaction with his/her environment. It is, however, still unclear whether individual
differences in imitation of mouth opening and tongue protrusion persist over time or if they are
heavily dependent on short-term situational factors. A longitudinal approach would therefore
be appropriate to carry out in future studies.
Definition of imitative responses
The behaviours most extensivly studied are tongue protrusion (17 studies reporting 28 experiments) and mouth opening (11 studies reporting 19 experiments). A11 other kinds of behaviour
are either used by only a small number of researchers or are unique to the study in focus.



M . Heininnti et al.

Scnnd J Psycho1 30 (1989)

It might be worth noting that of the 28 experiments in which tongue protrusion was used, 20
(12 studies) report positive findings. For mouth opening, 10 of 19 experiments (five studies)
observed imitative responses among their subjects.
Large differences are observed in rules used for judging the infants’ responses. Using
tongue protrusion for comparison, the following different criteria are noted: for Neuberger er
al. (1983) and McKenzie & Over (19S3a) the tongue has to pass “clearly beyond lips” whereas
Maratos ( 1373, 1982) talks about “distinct tongue protrusions”, and Dunkeld (1978) states
that the tongue has to “pass the lower lip”. Furthermore. Fontaine (1984) only counts a tongue
protrusion when the tongue has “clearly left the mouth”, a definition similar to the one used by
Kugiumutzakis (1985). Jacobson (1979) states that the tongue must be “visible on screen for
more than 0.5 sec”, and Meltzoff & Moore (1983~)note a tongue protrusion when the tongue
has “crossed the back edge of the lip”.
In some studies, attempts have been made to divide responses into exact and partial tongue
protrusions. Abravanel& Sigafoos ( 19S4) used two cross-sectional samples (N=90 and N = 6 5 )
in a study where imitation of several different types of behaviour (e.g. tongue protrusion,
mouth opening and hand opening) in 4-21-week-old infants were investigated. In analysing
their results, they differentiated between exact and partial responses. Overall. they report no
evidence for neonatal imitation except for partial tongue protrusions when the infants were
four to six weeks of age. Wolff (1987) studied 10 infants of various ages (range: four to seveil
weeks) and found that imitation of tongue protrusion does occur but that the result also
depends on how the responses have been defined. In contrast, Lewis & Sullivan (1985) report
no evidence of imitation of tongue protrusion regardless of whether partial or exact responses
are used.
Overall, the different definitions used and the various resu!ts reported indicate that how the
infants responses are operationalized might influence the obtained result. However, the
information available does not make it possible for us to draw any definite conclusions.
The aim of the present study is to further investigate (1) the presence of early individual
differences in neonatal imitation, and (2) to explore to what extent different definitions of the
infants’ responses affect the outcome.
Based on earlier reports, mouth opening and tongue protrusion were chosen as target
behaviours. Furthermore, a longitudinal design was considered necessary in order to study
stability in individual differences in early imitative behaviour.
More specifically the following hypotheses were formulated at the outset of the study. (1)
’There is an overall imitative capacity to be found at each age-level (two to three days, three
weeks, and three months of age) included. ( 2 ) Individual differences are expected to show at
least short-time stability. (3) Measures varying in definitions of acceptable responses as
“strong” or “weak” are expected to influence the obtained results.

The sample consists of 14 male and 18 female full-term infants (mean gestation age: 39 weeks, SD 1.3;
mean birthweight: 3569 g, SD 343 9). All infants were judged to be neither pre- nor post-mature by
paediatricians.The following criteria were met by all infants: (1) spontaneous or low forceps delivery; (2)
exposed to only regional anaesthesia or nitrousoxide; ( 3 )the mother was given no depressants; (4) a 1-min
Apgar score of 7 or more (mean Apgar score: 9.1, SD 0.73);(5) no obstetric complications, and (6) good
clinical condition. According to Hollingshead’s (1975) Four Factor Index of Social Status (adapted to
Swedish by Hwang & Broberg, 1984), the sample included predominantly middle and upper-class

&and J Psycho1 30 (1989)

Individiinl differences in neonutal imitation

A few observations had to be excluded from the analysis due to the infant being fussy o r not spending
enough time in an alert state during the observation period. These exclusions are based o n the coding of
the infants' state described below. In the final group analysis n=23 for the first (two to three days of age)
and second (three weeks of age) observation, and n=2J for the three-month observation. Complete data
from all three observations exist for I6 children in the sample.

The children were observed in a hospital setting at two to three days of age (mean age: 67 hr, SD 16 hr). in
the home at three weeks (mean age: 23 days, SD 5.6 days), and in a laboratory setting at three months of
age (mean age: 95 days, SD 7.7 days). Imitation of tongue protrusion, mouth opening and lip protrusion
was assessed in all three observations. However, most of the children did not show any lip protrusion at all.
Therefore, no detailed presentation of these very low frequency data will be included in this paper.
Observation I . While mother and child were still in the hospital. the experimenter took the infant to a
separate room that had been set up f o r the observation. The observation was always scheduled to take
place in between reedings. All mothers had been told that the aim of the study was to investigate infants'
reactions to moving objects and faces. and they had all agreed to participate in the project. They were fully
debriefed after completion of the study.
The infant was seated in an infant chair, held by experimenter A (female) by the torso in a free-field
way, or supported on A's lap in order to interact face-to-face with hsr. A second experimentcr (experimenter B; male) videotaped (90" angle) the observation. The equipment used was a lightweight portable
camera (Panasonic WVP-G1) with a separate recording unit (Panasonic N V 1%)). The video equipment
was set up behind a screen, with a hole made for the vidco camera's lens. making both the camera and the
second experimenter invisible to the infant.
Sessions were begun when the infant was judged by experirnentcr A to be awake and alcrt. During the
session, the experimenter was facing the infant at ii distance of approximately 2.5 cm. The mother was not
present in the room while observation of facial imitation took place at m y of the three obscrvations made
(two to three days, three weeks, and three monthsold). All mothers. howevcr. were invited to have ;Ilook
at the set-up if they wanted to.
Each observation started with a 60-sec long recording of a baseline period during which experimenter A
was passive and unresponsive to the infant. The first gesture was modelled aftcr the bascline period. and
modelling continued within this single presentation period until the child had been attcntive to the
stimulus as judged by the experimenter. The mean length of the prcsentation period for tongue protrusions was 37.0 sec (SD 7.6 sec) and the mean number of presentations w;is 15.4 (SD I .8).Mouth opening
was presented for 38.9 sec (SD 8.0) with a mean number of 14.3 (SD 2.2) presentations.
After modelling, the child was allowed a response period which ended when a total of 1.50 sec had
elapsed since the start of the modelling. However, only the first 60 sec of the response period were used
when analysing the data. The second and third gestures were presented using the same procedure
approximately 30sec after the end of the response period of the earlier gesture. if the experimenter judged
the infant still to b e in an alert state. This procedure resulted in a brief session for most infants.
The different gestures were presented in an order which was balanced across subjects and was
determined randomly without replacement. The random order of presentation for each infant was only
known to the second experimenter (B) who signalled to the first experimenter what gesture to model as
the presentation started.
Observaiions2 and3. The second observation was carried out in the infant's home when the child was
approximately three weeks old. The infant's responses to the same gestures as in observation 1 were
videotaped with the same type of portable equipment used in the hospital setting. The procedure was
identical to the one used for observation 1 except for two important changes:
(1) A new experimenter (female; experimenter C ) was used for modelling the gestures. This change was
considered important in order to prevent the modelling to be influenced by memories of the infant's
responses during the first observation.
(2) No screen was used to keep the video camera and the male experimenter (B) out of the infant's field
of vision.
The mean length of presentation and the number of presentations for each gesture during observation 2
were similar to what has been presented for observation 1.
The third observation was conducted in a laboratory setting at the Department of Psychology,
University of Gothenburg, Sweden. when each child was three months old. For all children, imitative
responses to the same gestures as in the two previous observations were observed, using the same basic
procedure as earlier described. The length of the three-month observation was shortened due to



M. Heinrann et al.

Scand J Psycho1 30 (19XY)

difficulties in keeping the children’s focus and attention. For each gesture, the total period of time
(modelling plus response period) averaged 80 sec. Only a 30-sec long response period was used for the
analysis. Furthermore, the same experimenter (A) as in observation 1 presented the gestures. In all other
aspccts, the procedure followed the outlines of observations 1 and 2.

In the analysis of the infants’ responses, the following definitions were used:
(A) Tongue protrusion: (1) A strong response was noted when the tongue was protruded beyond the
outer part of the lip with at least the length of the lip’s width. (2) A medium response was coded whenever
the tongue was protruded beyond the lips, but not longer than adistance equal to the width of the lip. (3) A
weak response indicated that the tongue was not protruded beyond the lips, although a clear forward
movement of the tongue could be seen. The tongue had to pass the posterior part of the lip.
(B) Mouth opening: (1) A strong mouth opening was coded if the lips were clearly and strongly
separated from each other. The opening had to be wider than the width of the lips. (2) Weak mouth
opening was defined as a clearly visible separation of the lips, although the end state was only a minor
change (never exceeding the width of the lips). In order to be coded as mouth opening, strong or weak, no
simultaneous protrusion of the tongue took place. Yawning was coded separately and was not included as
an adequate mouth opening response.
(C) Information about the state of the infants was coded for all three observations. The criteria used
were adapted from Theorell er al. (1973): State 1: Quiet and/or active sleep or drowsiness; State 2: Quiet
awake, eyes open, no movements; State 3: Active awake, eyes open, gross movements; State 4: Crying.
Coding and data handling
Imitative responses and stare. Infants’ responses during elicited imitation in observations 1-3 were
scored by independent observers, blind to what gesture the experimenter had modelled. This could be
achieved by using the split-screen technique, allowing the observer to see only the infant and never the
experimenter. For most of the coding procedure multiple viewings of the tapes were used. Reliability was
calculated using Cohen’s Kappa (Cohen, 1960; Fleiss ef of., 1969). The obtained coefficient was 0.87
(pc0.001) for tongue protrusion and 0.77 (pCO.001) for mouth opening. Finally, Cohen’s Kappa for
coding of state was 0.79 (p<O.OOl).
hilation indexes. Two different imitation indexes were constructed in order to analyse the infants’
imitative responses over the three observations made. The use of two indexes instead of one is for
exploratory reasons. The purpose was to obtain measures sensitive to each child’s individual response
pattern. Index type 1 is best described as a “weak“ index in that it is relatively easy for the child to be
judged as imitating according to the criteria used, while Index type 2 can be characterized as more “strict”.
It should further be noted that the lip protrusion segment was included when calculating the index scores.
The procedure for each index is briefly described below (a complete description can be obtained by
request from the first author).
Index ’ype 1: The child’s frequency of emitting thc behaviour that has been modelled (e.g. tongue
protrusion) is compared with the averaged frequency of that same behaviour in the two other segments
(when mouth opening and lip protrusion have been presented). This comparison is made separately for
weak, medium and strong responses and also separately for the first and last 30sec of the response period.
If, for example, the modelled behaviour is higher when comparing weak responses during the first 30 sec
the score is 1 (one). Since for tongue protrusion six comparisons are made (first 30 sec for weak, medium,
and strong tongue protrusions and last 30 sec of the response period for the same responses), the
maximum score is 6. The maximum score for mouth opening is 4 since “medium” was not used as a
Index 1ype.2:The comparison is made separately between the behaviour that has been modelled and the
other two segments using the total frequency during the response period. For mouth opening, as an
example, a score of 2 means that the child displays a higher frequency of mouth openings when mouth
opening is modelled than the frequency of mouth openings when either tongue or lip protrusions are
modelled. The maximum score for each behaviour is 2.

(A) Group and analysis

Observation 1. For tongue protrusions the total frequency is higher after modelling of
tongue protrusion than after modelling of mouth opening (pCO.10) (Table 1).The results for

Indir+tliitil t l i J ~ ~ w i i cin
r sneontiid imiiatioti

S a n d J Psycho1 30 (19x9)

Table I . Toial frequency of longue protrusiofrs ( T P ) during the resporisc periods lor rhe diJferenr models
presented and during baseline U I observations I , 2, and 3
Behaviour modelled


Observed behaviour



Observation I (n=23)
Weak T P
Medium TP
Strong T P


Observarian 2 (n=23)
Weak T P
Medium T P
Strong T P

Observaiion 3 (n=24)
Weak T P
Medium T P
Strong T P






59* *

31'* *




55'. *




* =p<0.10; * * =p<O.05; * * * =p<=O.OI (in comparison with T P ;
Wilcoxon signed-rank test, one-sided).

the different types of responses reveal that the main effect is for weak responses of tongue
protrusions. Here we find a clearly significant effect (p<O.Oj).
Table 1 also compares the frequency of tongue protrusions during the baseline period with
the frequency after modelling. A significantly higher frequency of tongue protrusions is
observed when comparing the total frequencies as well as for weak responses only @<O.O5). A
trend towards significance can be seen for medium responses (p<O.lO). In sum, then, the
group results for observation I presented in Table 1 display evidence for the existence of
imitative responses at this early age. For mouth opening, the infarits do not respond with any
selectivity at this age when mouth opening is presented (Table 2).
Observniion 2. Table 1 also displays the results of tongue protrusions at observation 2 .
Tongue protrusions were imitated by three-week-olds. A significantly higher @<0.01) frequency of weak responses is evident after modelling of tongue protrusion than after modelling
of mouth opening. The difference is not significant for medium or strong responses.
Comparing the total frequency of weak, medium and strong tongue protrusions after
modelling of tonguing with the responses displayed after presentation of mouth opening
reveals a significant difference (p<0.05).
Furthermore, comparing the children's frequency of tongue protrusion after modelling of
that same behaviour with spontaneously displayed tongue protrusions during baseline also
reveals a statistical effect overall (p4.01) as well as for weak tongue protrusions separately

These results indicate an imitative capacity for tongue protrusion when weak responses are
used for comparison. However, this capacity does not seem to exist at the group level for
medium or strong responses although these responses are more similar t o the model's
For mouth opening n o significant result is observed (see Table 2 ) . and there was only one



M . Heimann et al.

Scmd 1 Psycho1 30 (1989)

Tnblc 2. Total freyitency of moirrh openings (iM0) during [he response periods for the dqferent models
presented and during baseline at observations I , 2. und 3
Behnviour modellcd

Observed behaviour
Observation I (n=23)
Wcak MO
Strong MO






57 *





41 *

Weak MO
Strong MO





@hervation 2 (n=23)
Weak MO
Strong MO
Obsenwion 3 ( n =24)






= p c O . 10; * * =p<0.05; * * * =p<O.01 (in comparison with h10;
Wilcoxon signed-rank test, one-sidcd).

trend towards significance (for weak mouth openings when comparing with baseline,p<O. 10).
Overall, more frequent mouth openings are evident after modelling of tongue protrusion than
after modelling of mouth opening.
In sum, the main result is that three-week-old infants do show an imitative response after
modelling of tongue protrusion but not after modelling of mouth opening.
Observation 3. For this age group, no significant differences are observed (Table 1).There is
no evidence of a selective imitation of tongue protrusion when the observed frequencies are
analysed on a group level.
The results for mouth opening are similar to those described for tongue protrusion (Table
2). No indices of any selectivity in the children’s responses can be found when comparing the
overall response frequencies. By contrast, it seems as if presentation of any gesture (mouth
opening or tongue protrusion) suppresses the mouth opening frequency in comparison with
spontaneously emitted mouth openings during baseline. However, these differences do not
reach statistical significance.
In conclusion, the overall group results from observations 1-3 demonstrate a significant
imitative capability of tongue protrusion when the children are two to three days and three
weeks old, but not when three months old. In contrast. no similar overall results can be
detected for mouth opening.
(8)individuaf anaiysis

Dividing the children into imitators or non-imitators depending on type of response emitted
(see Table 3) demonstrates that the category “weak tongue protrusions” are responsible for
the overall effect found. A clear difference in imitative behaviour is noted between weak,
medium, and strong responses. The pattern is somewhat different for mouth opening. Except
for the results from the first observation, Table 3 shows that no similar differences are
observed for mouth opening.
Zmitation indexes. Two imitation indexes were constructed in order to analyse the infants’

Individirul d v f e r m c e s in neonural imitation

Scand J Psycho1 30 (1989)

Table 3. Percentuge of children judged

10 imiiare ufrer modelling at observariotr 1 . ohservution 2.
observurion 3, depending on the type of response emitred


Type of response
Tongue protrusion
Mouth opening













imitative responses over the three observations made. As has been stated earlier, the original
procedure included lip protrusion as well as mouth opening and tongue protrusion. In contrast
to the earlier presented group analysis the lip protrusion segment was included when calculating the index scores. Also, the comparison presented in Table 4 includes some children with
incomplete observations. This means, for example, that a child having been observed for
mouth opening and lip protrusion was included, although the tongue protrusion segment was
not acceptable. T h e criterion for being included in the correlational analysis was that at least
two segments were acceptably complete at a given age. This procedure maximizes the number
of children possible to use, but also gives rise to a variation in the number of children (the
"N's") included in the various correlations calculated.
Overall, three correlations out of nine indicate a significant (at least p<0.05) positive
relationship between imitation at observation 1 and observation 2 (range of correlations: 0.490.68). Two of these correlations and a marginal correlation (r=0.44; p<0.06) relate to Index
type 1 (tongue protrusion and mouth opening) and one relates to index type 2 (mouth

Table 4. Correlations

berween observations for 1nde.r y p e I and iype 2

Correlation ( r ) between


Obs 1-Obs 2

Obs 2-0bs 3

Obs I-Obs 3









0. I3











Type 1

Strong TP
Medium TP
Weak TP




Strong MO
Weak MO


Type 2



* =p<0.06; * * =p<0.05; * * * =p<O.Ol
TP=tongue protrusion.
MO=mouth opening.





M. Heimann el al.

Scand 1 Psycho1 30 (1989)

opening). This finding might indicate that a certain stability in infant imitation exists over the
first weeks of life.
A similar trend towards stability is not found when comparing observations 2 and 3 or
observations 1 and 3. Only one correlation reaches significance when analysing index scores
between observations 2 and 3 and no significant correlations are noted between observations 1
and 3.
In conclusion, the results presented in Table 4 show that there seems to be no stability in the
infants' imitative response pattern beyond the first three weeks of life. However, significant
correlations were found for both tongue protrusion and mouth opening between observations
1 and 2, indicating the possibility of some stability in imitative responses during the first three
weeks of life.
The main results are that individual differences in imitative capacity are present during the
first month of life. Support has also been presented for the importance of how the children's
responses are defined.
Furthermore, the observed results indicate that an overall imitative capacity exists at two to
three days of age and at three weeks of age for imitation of tongue protrusion. The result was
clearly significant (pC0.05 top<0.001), and 60-70% of the infants actually displayed imitative
responses. However, no similar effect was noted for imitation of tongue protrusion at three
months of age.
The observed effect of tongue protrusion at two to three days of age and three weeks of age
supports earlier reports claiming that an early imitative capacity can be seen at this early age
(Dunkeld, 1978; Field ctal., 1982; Fontaine, 1984, Heimann & Schaller. 1985; Ikegarni, 1984;
Kugiumutzakis, 1985; Maratos, 1973, 1982; Meltzoff & Moore, 1977, 19830; Vinter, 1986;
Wolff, 1987). To date, evidence exists from 21 experiments (13 studies) supporting the notion
that neonates can imitate tongue protrusion during the first month of life if the results from the
present study are included.
The marked decrease in imitative responses after modelling of tongue protrusion at three
months of age indicates a downward trend in imitation of this gesture over the first three
months of life. This finding is in line with what has beec reported by others (Abravanel &
Sigafoos, 1984; Fontaine, 1984; Kugiumutzakis, 1985; Marataos, 1973, 1982).
Of most importance is, however, the results indicating a short-time stability in imitative
behaviour over the first three weeks of life. Several imitation index scores at two to three days
of age and three weeks of age displayed a significant correlation: of nine observed correlations, three reached statistical significance (range: 0.49-0.68). All significant correlations
relate to index scores for tongue protrusion, mouth opening, or to summary measures. In
conclusion, short-time stability in imitative behaviour has been demonstrated by the results
Using these same index scores, no similar indication of stability in imitative response
patterns was observed between observations 1 and 3 or observations 2 and 3. Hence, the
observed stability seems to disappear as the children grow older.
The present work has further demonstrated that consideration must be given methodological issues when studying neonatal imitation. Taking observation 2 as an example, 65% of the
chiildren imitate tongue protrusion if weak responses are used as a criterion, but only 30%
when medium responses are used.
Differences in imitative responses depending on the type of criterion used can, furthermore,
be demonstrated for mouth opening in observation 1. Imitation of mouth opening at three

Scand J Psycho1 30 (1989)

Individual differences in neonatal imitation

weeks and three months of age did not display any notable differences in imitative responses
depending on the criteria used for judging imitation.
The literature review demonstrated that large differences can be observed among studies
investigating neonatal imitation. Meltzoff & Moore’s most recent experiment (19834 used a
criterion for tongue protrusion similar to weak responses in the present study. Few studies are,
however, sufficiently explicit about how they have defined their responses. For example,
Neuberger et al. (1983) and McKenzie & Over (1983~)state that the tongue has to “pass
clearly beyond the lips”, Maratos (1982) talks about “distinct tongue protrusions” whereas
Kugiumutzakis (1985) writes that the “tongue must be seen to leave the mouth”. It is difficult
to judge from these definitions if the authors have accepted only strong, only strong and
medium, or strong, medium and weak responses.
Partial responses have been used by Vinter (1986),Lewis & Sullivan (1985), and Abravanel
& Sigafoos (1984). Both Vinter and Lewis & Sullivan report that their results did not differ due
to whether “exact” or “partial” responses were coded. Abravanel & Sigafoos did, however,
find that an overall imitative tendency only existed for partial responses. A comparison
between the criteria used by Abravanel & Sigafoos and the criteria used in the present study
reveals that both “weak” and “medium” responses, as defined in the present study, are
included in what they have called “partial responses”.
The work presented has demonstrated an overall imitative capacity during the first weeks of
life as well as individual differences in neonatal imitation. It has been demonstrated that shorttime stability can be found for the individual differences observed among the subjects. In
addition, the obtained results show that methodological issues have to be taken into serious
consideration when studying neonatal imitation. The results depend on how the responses
used for coding the infants’ reactions are operationalized.
Meltzoff & Moore (1977,1983a, 6, 1985) have suggested that neonates have the capacity to
act upon multimodal information. According to Meltzoff & Moore (1985) “even this early
imitation, is mediated by an internal representation of the adult’s act” (p. 153). However,
others have claimed that neonatal imitation is governed by an innate releasing mechanism
(Jacobson, 1979) or is simply an artefact (Hayes & Watson, 1981).
In the present authors’ view, the data of this study support the hypothesis that neonates can
act upon visual information in order to perform a motor response they cannot see themselves
perform. It might, however, be possible that neonatal imitation and later emerging imitation
relies on different processes. It has been suggested that the young infant’s supramodal
competence is mediated through subcortical structures (Vinter, 1986) and Bjorklund (1987)
explicitly proposes a discontinuity in the development of imitation. For Bjorklund, neonatal
imitation is a “biologically wired-in’’ mechanism serving an immediate socially adaptive
function for the neonate.
The fact that only short-time stability in neonatal imitation was observed is a possible
indicator of a discontinuity in imitative development. However, the present study only
investigated imitation during the first three months of life making it impossible to draw any
definite conclusions. What is needed is a study covering the first two years of life. Such a
longitudinal study could include observations of neonatal imitation as well as later emerging
imitation as the child’s cognitive and social skills develop.
Consideration must also be given to the state of the infants while observing them. In the
present study, quite a large number of infants had to be excluded after blind coding of the
infants’ state from video recordings. Since the young infant spends very short time-periods in


100 M . Heimann e t a l .

Scand J Psycho1 30 ( 19x9 1

an alert state (see Wolff, 1987) it becomes absolutely essential that infants are observed when
in an adequate state.
In conclusion, future studies have to be precise about how they define the infants’ responses
and on how they judge alertness. Furthermore, some new studies have to adopt a long-term
longitudinal approach. A longitudinal approach is the only one that might provide us with an
answer to one of the most important questions remaining: How does individual differences in
neonatal imitation relate to later imitation seen around 9-18 months of age?
The research described is based on a doctoral dissertation submitted by Mikael Heimann to the Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University, 1988. This research was supported by grants from the
First of May Flower Annual Campaign for Children’s Health, Sweden, and from the Royal Swedish
Academy of Science to Mikael Heimann. Furthermore, this research was partially supported by Grant 1
R03 MH37803-01 from the National Institute of Mental Health, USA, to Keith E. Nelson.
The authors wishes to thank Eva Ullstadius, Ensebet Holmquist, Tommy Sjolund, Biirje Suvinen and
Kent Lind for helping collect the data and for coding the videotapes. Thanks are also due to the staff of
Sahlgren’s Hospital, Goteborg, Sweden, and to all the babies with their families who participated in the

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Received 22 June 1988