Why Do Children Imitate What They See?

Babies begin to imitate everything they see a few minutes after birth. But why do children imitate what they see? In this article, we'll explain the main reasons.
Why Do Children Imitate What They See?

Last update: 21 May, 2020

Children have the great ability to imitate what they see. Within hours of birth, babies begin to imitate the adults around them. For example, if their mother sticks out her tongue, the newborn imitates her with remarkable success by copying the same behavior. But why do children imitate everything they see? What’s the reason for this behavior?

Thanks to imitation, children become able to exercise their own possibilities of expression. We could say that babies begin to experience the coincidence of what’s perceived with their behavior, according to the theory of modeled behavior (Meltzoff, 2007; Meltzoff & Moore, 1977).

When babies are 12 to 21 days old, they can mimic facial and manual gestures. Such imitation implies that newborns can equate their own invisible behaviors with gestures they see others do. Next, we’ll show you a study in which you’ll see when children begin to imitate what they see.

“Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”

– Robert Fulghum –

Children imitate what they see.

Newborns imitate the facial gestures of adults

In a study conducted by Meltzoff AN. and Moore MK., they evaluated the ability of newborns aged between 0.7 and 71 hours to imitate two adult facial gestures: mouth opening and tongue protrusion (sticking out the tongue). They placed the newborns in a dimly lit room and the experts used infrared-sensitive video equipment to observe them.

Then, the videotaped records were evaluated by an observer who wasn’t informed about the gesture shown to the babies. The experts counted both the frequency and duration of neonatal mouth openings and tongue protrusions. The results showed that newborns can mimic both adult gestures.

This study suggests that this imitative behavior is probably due to three possible underlying mechanisms: instrumental or associative learning, innate releasing mechanisms, and active intermodal matching.

In other words, the ability to recognize stimuli initially encoded in a sensory modality through a different modality (for example, touching them without seeing them to seeing them without touching them).

“Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.”

– Charles Caleb Colton –

Why do children imitate what they see?

Children imitate what they see due to mirror neurons, which were discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti. Mirror neurons are particular types of neurons that humans possess.

These neurons activate when a person performs an action but also when that person observes a similar action performed by another person. Mirror neurons are part of a neural network system that enables execution-intention-emotion perception.

A baby imitating her mother exercising.

When we stop to observe another person, the simple movement of their hand, foot, or mouth activates the same specific regions of the motor cortex, as if the observer were making the same movements. But the process goes beyond that – the movement, when observed, generates a similar latent movement in the observer.

The system integrates into its neural circuits the attribution or perception of other people’s intentions, as explained by the theory of mind.

In this regard, interpersonal understanding and action is based on our understanding of the intentions and, also, of the motives of other people’s behaviors. To achieve this, neural circuits subliminally simulate the actions we observe, allowing us to identify with others.

Thus, actor and observer are in very similar neural states, as if they were doing the same actions, capturing intentions or feeling the same emotions.


Humans are social beings. Thus, our survival depends on understanding the intentions and emotions that people’s behaviors translate. Mirror neurons make it possible for us to understand the minds of our peers and not through conceptual reasoning but directly – by feeling and without having to think.

Mirror neuron systems make it possible to learn imitation gestures: smiling, walking, talking, dancing, and playing soccer, among other actions. In addition, they allow us to feel that we fell when we see another person on the floor, the pain we feel when someone cries, and shared joy, among others.

“There’s a certain consistency to who I am and what I do, and I think people have finally said, ‘Well, you know, I kinda get her now.’ I’ve actually had people say that to me.”

– Hillary Clinton –

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Adrian Serrano, J. E. (2008). El desarrollo psicológico infantil. Áreas y procesos fundamentales (Vol. 27). Publicacions de la Universitat Jaume I.
  • García García, E., González Marqués, J., & Maestú Unturbe, F. (2011). Neuronas espejo y teoría de la mente en la explicación de la empatía. Ansiedad y estrés17(2-3), 265-279.
  • Meltzoff, AN., & Moore, MK. (1977). Imitation of Facial and Manual Gestures by Human Neonates. Science, 198, 75-78.
  • Meltzoff, AN y Moore, MK. (1983). Los recién nacidos imitan los gestos faciales de los adultos. Desarrollo infantil , 702-709.
  • Uríbarri Bilbao, G., Cortina Orts, A., & Triviño Mosquera, M. (2014). Neurociencia, neuroética y biética. Universidad Pontifica Comillas.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.