Within arms reach: Physical proximity shapes mother-infant language exchanges in real-time

Catalina Suarez-Rivera, Nicole Pinheiro-Mehta, Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During everyday interactions, mothers and infants achieve behavioral synchrony at multiple levels. The ebb-and-flow of mother-infant physical proximity may be a central type of synchrony that establishes a common ground for infant-mother interaction. However, the role of proximity in language exchanges is relatively unstudied, perhaps because structured tasks—the common setup for observing infant-caregiver interactions—establish proximity by design. We videorecorded 100 mothers (U.S. Hispanic N = 50, U.S. Non-Hispanic N = 50) and their 13- to 23-month-old infants during natural activity at home (1-to-2 h per dyad), transcribed mother and infant speech, and coded proximity continuously (i.e., infants and mother within arms reach). In both samples, dyads entered proximity in a bursty temporal pattern, with bouts of proximity interspersed with bouts of physical distance. As hypothesized, Non-Hispanic and Hispanic mothers produced more words and a greater variety of words when within arms reach than out of arms reach. Similarly, infants produced more utterances that contained words when close to mother than when not. However, infants babbled equally often regardless of proximity, generating abundant opportunities to play with sounds. Physical proximity expands opportunities for language exchanges and infants’ communicative word use, although babies accumulate massive practice babbling even when caregivers are not proximal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101298
JournalDevelopmental Cognitive Neuroscience
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Burstiness
  • Infant vocalizations
  • Infant-caregiver interactions
  • Language input
  • Proximity
  • Synchrony
  • Temporal structure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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