Most adults do not think newborns are cute

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

If it wasn't love at first sight when you first held your baby then take heart, according to a new study most adults don't find newborns particularly cute at all.

The research, presented in a paper entitled "Are newborns' faces less appealing?" and published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour found that while newborns were rated as the "least attractive", six-month-old babies were deemed the cutest.

As part of the study, researchers showed 142 people photos of 18 babies. The snaps were taken just after birth, at three months old and again at six months old. The Brock University team asked participants how willing they would be to adopt the babies based on their perceptions of the children's "cuteness, happiness, health and self-resemblance".

"We noticed adults rated the newborns as the least attractive and the six-month-olds had the highest ratings across all of the facial cues," said lead author Prarthana Franklin. In addition newborns received lower hypothetical adoption ratings than both three and six-month-old bubs.

"That was interesting because usually we think that the younger children are, the cuter they are and so more people prefer younger children," said Ms Franklin, explaining that the study showed "a lower limit of three months old that's the preferred age compared to newborns".

Co-author Tony Volk told The Brock News that he and his team were initially puzzled by their finding that cuteness peaks at six months.Why? Well, because back in 1940, Konrad Lorenz, an ethologist, theorised that babies' cuteness, traits such as big eyes, chubby cheeks and broad smiles, brings out nurturing behaviour in caregivers, which ensures their survival. Lorenz termed this inderschema," or "child schema". According to this theory, newborn bubs should be seen as the cutest given they need the most care and protection  - and are the most vulnerable.

"We wondered, why would there be this specific peak?" Associate Professor Volk said of their findings. "But then, we read the medical literature, which was almost universal in that six month olds are better at surviving illnesses than younger babies."

Volk suggests that the delay in "cuteness perception" may actually be an adult-driven adaptation, a leftover from evolutionary periods where resources were scarce and infant mortality was high, due to deadly diseases. "These are difficult decisions that humans have made for thousands of years," Associate Professor Volk says, adding that a delay in attachment makes those early losses easier to cope with. 

"Hunter-gatherers who already had a child they were nursing, couldn't nurse two children at once," says Associate Professor Volk. "If you're a peasant mother in medieval England and you only have enough food for one child, and if having two means they're both likely to die, it's best just to have one child."

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Peasant mothers aside, the authors say there's an important underlying message for modern parents in their research.

"We want to let parents know that if they're not instantly grabbed by this baby as much as they thought they might be, then that's normal. The bonding will build and grow over time," Associate Professor Volk​ says. Rather than overly relying on "natural bonding" to occur, the authors argue that new parents should be offered additional supports including social support and adequate rest.

"While such bonding undoubtedly occurs in the majority of childbirths," the authors write, "our results along with other studies on hormones, parental stress and parent sensitivity, suggest that this process may be somewhat less automatic."

When discussing the study's implications for parenting, however, it's important to note that study participants were not related to the babies whose cuteness they were rating."We therefore examined a general preference among adults rather than actual parental decision-making or investment," the authors write.

And perception of "cuteness" they admit, represents only one component of parenting. "There are various other important factors, including parents' motivation, hormone levels, resources, and/or knowing that the child is biologically yours, that impact newborn caregiving decisions," the authors note. "Thus, the actual impacts of newborn facial cues on parenting ... remain to be tested."

Speaking to CBC, Associate Professor Volk said one of the biggest takeaways of the research is that "preference for cuteness is arbitrary".

"We could evolve a preference for things such as thinking centipedes are really cute while flowers are really ugly," he said.