mise à jour du
12 décembre 2010
Biol Lett
Neither infants nor toddlers catch yawns
from their mothers
Ailsa Millen, James R. Anderson
Department of Psychology, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK


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This study aimed to clarify whether infants and preschool children show susceptibility to contagious yawning, a well-known effect that has been demonstrated experimentally in older children and adults by exposing them to video sequences showing yawns. In a first study, parents kept a log of their child's yawns for a one week period. None of the log entries reported any contagious yawns by the children. Although less frequent than in older children and adults, spontaneous yawning by infants and preschoolers showed the typical morning, post-wakening peak, and an increase before bedtime in the evening. In an experimental study, infants and preschoolers watched a presentation that included many images of yawning and a repeated video clip of their own mother yawning, but there was no evidence of contagious yawning. The results suggest that, even when witnessing yawns by someone with whom they have a strong and positive emotional relationship, very young children do not show contagious yawning.
Despite its ubiquity, human yawning remains poorly understood from psychological, functional and developmental perspectives [1]. With regard to the latter, yawn-like activity has been reported in the foetus [2]. Premature babies yawn less frequently as homeostatic control of sleeping and waking states improves [3]. Children in their first year of primary school yawned up to five times more frequently than in their final year of kindergarten [4]. According to parental reports, by the age of 12 years children yawn around nine times per day [5], which is similar to the 7-9 times per day reported by adults [6], but lower than the 11 and 23 times per day reported for adult 'morning types' and 'evening types', respectively [7].
One intriguing but understudied aspect of yawning in young infants is its so-called contagiousness. In adults, yawns seen on video induce yawning in approximately half of young adult observers [8]. Platek et al. reported a correlation between susceptibility to video-induced contagious yawning in adults and questionnaire measures of empathy [9]. In an experimental study of contagious yawning in children, there were no yawn-inducing effects of video yawn stimuli in children below 5 years of age; susceptibility increased throughout primary school years and reached adult-like levels by 12 years of age [10]. The absence of contagious yawning in preschoolers contrasted with earlier reports of imitation of facial (including mouth) movements by neonates and 1year-olds [11,12].
In the study by Anderson & Meno [10] the yawning model in the video (a young adult female) was unfamiliar to the children. Given that model identity and empathy may be important factors in socially facilitated behaviour, including imitation [13,14], here we presented young children with a highly familiar yawning model, one with whom they are likely to have a strong and positive emotional relationship. This study had two principal aims. First, given the paucity of information on the spontaneous occurrence of yawning in preschool children, we asked mothers to keep a log of yawning by their children. Second, we assessed susceptibility to contagious yawning experimentally, using video stimuli in which the model was the child's own mother.
No parent who submitted a log made any reference to contagious yawning by the child. Furthermore, experimental exposure to yawn stimuli failed to induce yawning in preschool children. Together, these observations suggest that, as originally reported by Anderson & Meno [10], infants and preschoolers appear largely immune to contagious yawning, in marked contrast to older children and adults. Furthermore, the failure to show contagious yawning occurs even when the model is an emotionally significant one.
Although devoid of any reference to contagious yawning, the log data revealed young children's natural 'yawn profiles' to be similar to those reported for adults. However, the overall daily mean frequency of yawns reported by parents for their children (2.2) was much lower than frequencies reported by adults recording their own yawns (7-9: [6]; 11-23: [7]). Given the much higher frequencies of spontaneous yawning reported in schoolchildren [4,5], it seems likely that parents missed some of their child's yawns, and/or disproportionately recorded yawns when in close proximity to the child, such as when putting the child to sleep, or at mealtimes. More research is required to clarify the normal daily range of yawns for young infants and preschool children.
The largely negative results from the video study confirm that infants and preschoolers are much less susceptible to psychological influences on yawning when compared with older children and adults [10]. This is in spite of the fact that the yawning model on video was the child's mother; therefore, even a positive emotional bond with the model appears insufficient to elicit contagious yawning in very young children. This is one context in which the 'Bonding- and Identification-based Observational Learning' model [13] may not apply. The absence of contagious yawning in very young children suggests that different or additional brain mechanisms underlie yawning in older individuals, and also that neonatal and infant imitation of facial movements [11,12] are based on different neural mechanisms to those involved in contagious yawning.
It should be noted, however, that certain aspects of the experimental procedure might have reduced the likelihood of obtaining contagious yawning. For example, general arousal from attending to the stimulus presentation, including the novelty of seeing the mother yawning on the video monitor, might have inhibited yawning. Indeed, the artificiality of experimental video sessions may inhibit yawning in some adult participants (see [17]). Researchers should, therefore, aim to increase the ecological validity of ivestigations into contagious yawning, such as by using live models, and incorporating various real-life contexts.

Contagious yawning: the role of self-awareness and mental state attribution Platek SM, Critton SR, et al
Yearning to yawn: the neural basis of contagious yawning Schurmann M, Hari R et al
Contagious yawning and the brain Platek S, Mohamed F, Gallup G
Echokinetic yawning, theory of mind, and empathy Walusinski O
Contagious yawning and the frontal lobe: An fMRI study Nahab FB, Hattori N, Saad ZS, Hallett M
Exploring yawning with neuroimaging Nahab FB.
An investigation of auditory contagious yawning Arnott SR, Singhal A, Goodale MA.
Yawn, yawn, yawn, yawn; yawn, yawn, yawn! The social, evolutionary and neuroscientific facets of contagious yawning. Platek SM.

Neither infants nor toddlers catch yawns from their mothers
Millen A, Anderson JR
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