Are newborn babies ugly? A Brock University study investigates

A Brock University study shows most adults find their newborn babies to be uglier then expected. But their feelings change after the six-month-old mark.

Adults find the faces of six-month-old babies most appealing, says a new Brock University study

A new study conducted by Brock University shows adults have the tendency to find newborn babies uglier then six-month-old babies. (Shutterstock)

It's OK if you don't think your newborn is cute.

In fact, it's rather common, says a new study by Brock University. And it likely impacts how we parent.

Tony Volk, an associate professor of child and youth studies, and his team of researchers conducted a study by showing 142 research participants 54 photographs of infants between the ages of newborn, three months and six months. The team also asked participants how willing they would be to adopt the babies based on their facial cues.

Infant facial cues such as cuteness, health, happiness and self-resemblance are associated with how adults care for and behave toward their newborns, said Volk.

Tony Volk, an associate professor of child and youth studies at Brock University, says our perceptions of a baby's cuteness has real-life implications. (Brock University )

During the study, participants were asked to vote for the babies on a scale of one to nine (lowest to highest) based on a number of facial cues. 

Volk wanted to know how adults perceive a newborn's facial expressions by comparing the difference between the infant's needs and how willing an adult is to meet those needs based on the baby's cuteness.  

The study found most believed babies were cutest at six months old as opposed to when they're newborns.

Volk said he was astonished by the results, so he decided to investigate two theories.

"One theory is that babies' faces are cute, so babies themselves can get more care. That means the babies are in the driver's seat," said Volk. "[The other theory is] if adults are perceiving this differently, it suggests it's in the adult's interest if they find newborns as attractive as older infants."

The research has real life implications. An adult's perception of their infant's facial cues can play a large role in abandoning that infant in first few weeks of life, Volk said.

An organized table graphing out Brock Universities research team's study. (Prarthana Franklin )

Ancient Rome historian Emerita Beryl Rawson found in a 2003 study that historical parents used to invest more time in infants that appeared "stronger." That means the parents would neglect the baby if it appeared "weak."

These results from Rawson's study are shocking, Volk said. But they aren't far off from his study. Six month olds are perceived as healthier too.

"Parents [back then] had to make difficult decisions at times, whether or not they could afford a newborn baby," Volk said.

"[If parents] have a newborn baby and the mother is still nursing [a previous] baby, she can't nurse two babies effectively at once," said Volk. "[The mother] is going to invest in the older kid that she has because in the point of view of the parents, that kid has passed the danger zone."

Newborn babies also have a greater risk of getting ill, says the study.

"If a newborn catches a small fever, it's a hospital event," said Volk. "However, if the same fever happens to a six-month-old baby, it's nothing [to be alarmed about.]" 

Brock University conducted a study of 142 people about how cute newborn babies are compared to three-month-old babies and six-month-old babies. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Another factor is the male perspective.

According to the study, men are more likely to invest more time and nourishment to their baby if it resembles them. Generally, older infants resemble their parents more. Newborn babies' faces are still developing.

'Preference for cuteness is arbitrary'

"They're much more redder from the pressure of giving birth," Volk said, "and sometimes there's a little bruising." 

Women show higher preferences to cues such as health and happiness, he said. That's because of a women's natural nurturing instincts.

But Volk said the biggest thing to take away from the study is the evolution of preference.

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

Volk now plans to investigate the difference between younger and older parents and the nature of their nurturing, as well as first-time parents compared to parents who already have a few children.

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