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Do Babies' Looks = Love?

People do NOT like looking at abnormal looking babies. That's the word out of a SMALL study by doctors Igor Elman and Rinah Yamamoto at Harvard Medical School affiliate McLean Hospital.

In the study, the doctors equated ugly and abnormal. A total of 27 testers -- only six of whom were parents -- were shown photos of 50 normal infants and 30 infants that had abnormal facial features, including cleft palates, skin disorders and Down's Syndrome. The study found that woman avoided looking at the abnormal babies. Both men and woman rated them as "unattractive."

"What our results suggest is that [unconditional parental love] is determined by facial attractiveness," said Yamamoto. The study's authors point to a study in Israel showing that 70 percent of children abandoned by their parents had a conspicuous, non life-threatening flaw in their appearance as proof that a mother's love may not truly be unconditional.

Still, I've got to think that all those birthing hormones have to help us fall in love with our babies. Just looking at a spectrum of normal babies at the park elicits thoughts of cute or not. And while I always keep my thoughts hush-hush, personally, I've always had a different reaction to others' babies than to my own, who simply seemed beautiful to me -- even the one who came out bruised and battered from a difficult birth. In an e-mail exchange yesterday, Yamamoto told me I was on the right track, sending me a study that backs this up.

The study's authors agree that the study isn't perfect. Reports Time:

There are some potential holes in Elman's work, all of which he acknowledges. For one thing, it's possible women avoid the unattractive faces not because they're less sensitive to them but because they're more sensitive, simply finding the hardships endured by unhealthy babies too difficult to contemplate. Such highly tuned empathy can ultimately make them better caregivers, even if a four-second exposure to the idea is painful. "Everyone will try to get away from a stimulus that feels like a punishment and hold on to one that feels like a reward," Elman says.
More important, the way people of either gender react to a picture of an anonymous child with physical abnormalities is likely to be radically different from the way they would react if that child were their own — something that is readily evident from all the disabled children on whom parents lavish love.

Does the look of a child impact your behavior towards him/her? Do you find yourself treating unattractive children differently than attractive ones?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  June 26, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Babies
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Comments


Doesn't every mother think her kids are beautiful? I know that I have looked back at pictures of my kids that at the time I thought were literally breathtaking and see that they are just nice pictures of nice looking kids. I think the saying "A face only a mother could love" is based in some truth.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | June 26, 2009 8:24 AM | Report abuse

The excellent anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (real spelling) has written about how baby humans and baby animals have actually evolved to look "cute" in order to inspire protective feelings in their parents and others.

Posted by: bubba777 | June 26, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Does the look of a child impact your behavior towards him/her?


in our experience, no. When we look back at photos of our girl when she was 3, 4, 5 months old, we see a homely (borderline ugly) little baby. But at the time we thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world.

i still think she's the cutest little girl ever, but now i realize that my opinion is a little biased.

Posted by: interestingidea1234 | June 26, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Our son was a really goofy looking baby, but so was my husband. I saw his newborn pictures and they were not good. My in-laws joked around about how my husband was so strange looking as a newborn but he turned into a cute toddler and is now (imho) a very nice looking man - so we had hope for our baby.

It is all a huge joke now but I never had any doubt that regardless of how goofy he looked we would love him as much as our beautiful first born. Sorry to brag but she was a gorgeous baby, the kind that stopped people in their tracks - so the contrast was stark.

As for other babies, I like to think of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer says a friend's (ugly) baby "looks just like Lyndon Johnson." I have felt that way about other babies, some are cute, some are not - it is best to keep your mouth shut and celebrate that they are healthy and loved. I'd say most babies are kinda funky looking in the first month, skin rashes, misshaped heads, wrinkly. Even if they are not beautiful, in time they become their own little person and that what I try to concentrate on.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | June 26, 2009 9:39 AM | Report abuse

Forgot to mention, goofy looking second baby is a good looking 8 year old now.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | June 26, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

I've never seen my kids, but I think I know what they look like, or at least I have an imagination of what they look like. Hmmm..., I guess I can only judge people by their inner beauty.

But don't all babies look the same?

My oldest son, who just got promoted out of elementary school, was telling me all the shananigans he pulled during his time there, many of which I haven't heard of until last week. (Some of the stories are hilarious) I had no idea that the kid spent that much time in the principal's office or cleaning off his fellow classmates' desktops during recess. Why I didn't get more notes sent home, emails, phone calls and made to sit through more parent/teacher conferences than I already did is somewhat of a mystery.

From what I hear, it's not only the hair of his chinny chin chin, but his platinum blonde hair and dimple on his left cheek that forms when he grins that got him by.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | June 26, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I too look at pix of the kids when they were tiny and think; no, he didn't look like *that* - he was gorgeous! It's definitely an interesting phenomenon.
My second child is definitely very handsome. I have people tell me all the time - catch their breath, etc, it's strange to me. Since the two boys look almost exactly alike.
But I do think there's something to a baby being *your* child, that you can see them differently than the rest of the world.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | June 26, 2009 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I saw a picture of my newborn son a few weeks ago and thought, "Yikes, was he ever ugly those first 2 days." At the time though, I thought he was the most beautiful baby imaginable. It never occurred to me that he was not looking his best, or that his face was red and puffy and his eyes barely visible. To me, he was just gorgeous. I also thought my daughter wa gorgeous when she was born. Her newborn pictures are a bit better than her brother's, but still. Now I still think my kids, both of them, are gorgeous. Of course they have grown out their newborn beauty challenges, and I think anyone would empirically judge them as reasonably attractive these days, but to me, they are drop dead gorgeous. But I know I'm biased, and if that is what love does, then I am all for it.

Posted by: emily8 | June 26, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

"The cutest little Winston Churchill in the world," was how DH described both our boys when they were newborns.

My/our favorite niece was born with multiple hematomas on her face. The one that was just below her eyebrow and partially blocking her eye had to be removed, so her eye-sight would develop normally and she wouldn't end up with monocular vision. The others were left alone and faded into invisibility by the time she was 4 or 5.

Their looks never seemed to make the slightest difference in how the kids were treated. (Their genders were a different story though.)

Oh, and favorite niece is now a drop-dead georgeous 16-y-o working towards an acting/modelling career. Older son is an average, nice-looking 17-y-o, and younger son is a cute 12-y-o.

Posted by: SueMc | June 26, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Time had it right: I would turn away because it hurts too much to think about bad things happening to kids. Same reason I don't read CNN headlines or watch Nancy Grace.

DD came out as a toasterhead/conehead from both vacuum and foreceps. I remember looking at her right after delivery thinking that something was really wrong, that her face wasn't in the right place. Only took me about 15 minutes to decide that she was the most beautiful baby EVER. Looking back, yeah, she was cute, but not any cuter than your average baby.

DS, on the other hand, is stop-traffic adorable (think cherub). I do wonder whether that has helped him develop his happy, mellow, easygoing temperament -- he thinks the world is his oyster, and I wonder if that's at least in part because he is just flat-out used to grownups (women, that is) fawning all over him. Then again, that's also DH's world view, and the boy does seem to be DH's mini-me, so maybe it's just innate. :-) But I am actually a little glad for DD's sake that DS is moving a little out of that adorable baby/toddler stage and into more normal little boy-ness -- it's been really hard sometimes when people talk about how cute the boy is, when DD's sitting there like chopped liver.

Posted by: laura33 | June 26, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I can see how this experiment could be broadly true. My firstborn was gorgeous not too long after she arrived after 40 weeks. My second? Not so much. I have to wonder if it was because she was 38 weeks and wasn't "finished" yet. She was weird looking and, with my hormones and her irritability, I know that my reaction to her was far less than sensitive for a few weeks. Shameful but true. It took her a couple of weeks/months to fill out and for me to bond. She's quite a good looking toddler now. I think another part of the equation for me is the quicky c-section I was recommended to have. It impacts the birthing hormones which I've not been lucky enough to experience either time :(

Posted by: flabbergast | June 26, 2009 2:32 PM | Report abuse

But I am actually a little glad for DD's sake that DS is moving a little out of that adorable baby/toddler stage and into more normal little boy-ness -- it's been really hard sometimes when people talk about how cute the boy is, when DD's sitting there like chopped liver.

Posted by: laura33 | June 26, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse


If it's soo hard, why do you keep bringing it up on this blog? He might turn out like Ron Howard - problem solved.

Posted by: jezebel3 | June 26, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Ummm, gee, Jez, maybe cuz today's blog was about kids' looks? Read much lately?

Points for Ron Howard, though.

Posted by: laura33 | June 26, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

fr SueMc:

>...Oh, and favorite niece is now a drop-dead georgeous 16-y-o working towards an acting/modelling career. ...

There would be NO WAY I'd allow a minor to pursue a modelling career, no matter how "drop dead gorgeous" they are, esp a 16 year old. They're too easily exploited.

Posted by: Alex511 | June 26, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

As a speech language pathologist who works with children with special needs, I find this study a bit sad. Some of the children that society judges as "less beautiful" on the outside are the most beautiful inside. Let's not miss them.

Sherry Artemenko
http://www.playonwords.com

Posted by: playonwordscom | June 28, 2009 9:14 PM | Report abuse

There would be NO WAY I'd allow a minor to pursue a modelling career, no matter how "drop dead gorgeous" they are, esp a 16 year old. They're too easily exploited.

Posted by: Alex511 | June 26, 2009 4:57 PM

A bit late, but I happen to agree with you, Alex.

Except that it's my niece we're talking about, and the decision is my sister's, not mine. And *nobody* gets between that particular "mother hen" and her one-and-only-chick.

Sister took Grandma along on the latest audition trip to down to LA. So, "our girl" always had *two* of the toughest and fiercest people I know with her every single minute. I wouldn't want to be someone either of those two even *suspected* of trying to exploit "our girl". SCARY!!!!

(And if they ever needed to hide a body, there's an awful lot of extended family who'd help without question.)

Posted by: SueMc | June 29, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

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