Over the past week Arya reacted differently to strangers than to her parents.
From the time she was born our daughter loved to be carried by everyone. She didn’t care who was carrying her as long as they were holding her securely. That changed last week.
On two occasions during the week Arya became grumpy when another person carried her and only settled down after Mommy or Daddy took her back. That lead me to question: when do babies recognize their parents?
Both times Arya was in an unfamiliar place surrounded by lots of strangers. The first time we were in a restaurant for a friend’s birthday party. The second we were in a friend’s apartment during an afternoon lunch gathering. The restaurant and apartment were also loud with people laughing and talking.
Some combination of the location, noise, and strangers made baby uncomfortable. She was fine when my wife or I carried her, but cried within a few minutes of being carried by someone else. Since Arya just turned 14-weeks old it makes sense that she is now able to differentiate between her parents and everyone else.
Although babies can recognize faces from soon after birth, distinguishing between different faces is a more complex task. Researchers have shown that newborns can identify their mother, but they may be relying on voice and smell to establish recognition.
A 1981 research article in the journal Child Development found that babies can recognize a picture of their mother at three months of age. Contemporary articles noted that three-month old babies can also discriminate between strangers and identify facial expression.
Studies also found that 14-week old babies smiled more often at videos of their mother than of strangers whereas 10-week old babies showed no difference. The same study found no difference when babies looked at videos of their fathers. At four-months old babies also show the ability to pair faces and voices even from strangers.
Research overwhelmingly suggests that Arya should be able to identify Mommy based on face, voice, smell, or in a picture. Unfortunately, there is scarce data about when she should be able to identify me. However, from our own anecdotal experience I am sure that my daughter reacts differently to me than to strangers. While the good part involves smiling in the morning, the bad part means that she cries more often at home with me than outside with strangers.
The fact that Arya settled down immediately after being carried by me (in the restaurant) and Mommy (in the apartment) implies that she differentiated between the stranger who was initially carrying her and her own parents. As she never displayed that behavior before, it makes sense that something about her development changed in the past week.
When combined with the volume of research on babies recognizing individual faces, the most likely conclusion is that Arya can now recognize her parents and prefers being carried by Mommy or Daddy particularly when in an unfamiliar or noisy environment.
It is possible that we carry her differently than other people or that something else about us like our smell or voices is soothing. Overall, I am confident–based both on academic research and our own experience–that our baby started to recognize us from around 10 weeks and can clearly identify us even in a crowd of people now that she is 14-weeks.