Visual attention in deaf and hearing infants: the role of auditory cues


Margaret Harris, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham Hill, Surrey TW20 0EX; UK; Email:


Background:  Successful communication with profoundly deaf children is heavily dependent on visual attention. Previous research has shown that mothers of deaf children – notably those who are deaf themselves – use a variety of strategies to gain their children's attention. This study compares patterns of visual attention in deaf and hearing children to determine how they are affected by the absence of auditory cues, especially when looking to the mother's face.

Method:  The visual attention of 18-month-old infants to their mothers was examined in two groups of deaf children (6 with deaf mothers and 6 with hearing mothers) and two of hearing children (6 with deaf mothers and 8 with hearing mothers). Dyads were observed in free play and 10 minutes of videorecorded interaction was analysed. All looks to the mother were classified as Spontaneous, Responsive (Child turns in response to something done by mother) or Elicited (Mother actively seeks to gain child's attention by, e.g., tapping or waving). The kind of event that attracted the child's attention in Responsive and Elicited episodes was also determined (e.g., object movement, speech, physical contact), as was the focus of the child's attention (e.g., mother's face, mother's body).

Results:  Responsive looks to the mother were the most frequent for all groups but on only about 25% of occasions were they directed to her face. Elicited and spontaneous looks occurred less often but were frequently directed to the mother's face. Spontaneous looking occurred in all groups but elicited looking very seldom occurred in Hearing–Hearing dyads. Overall, there were fewer looks to the mother in the two groups where mother and child had congruent hearing status, although the proportion of the looks to the mother's face was similar.

Conclusions:  Both spontaneous and elicited looks are likely to involve attention to the mother's face. However, while active elicitation of attention is an important part of successful communication with young deaf children, this does not appear necessary for typically developing hearing children who turn to look at their mother's face on hearing her voice. The implications of these findings for differences in the dynamics of communication with young deaf and hearing children are discussed.