Unique insight into the mists of infancy

September 1, 1995

A Dundee University psychology graduate has won a Pounds 20,000 studentship from the Economic and Social Research Council for a three-year investigation into the development of blind babies.

Julie Rattray, who graduated in July, said the development of visually impaired infants is a very under-researched area.

"The majority of research on early communication has been carried out with infants who are following the 'normal' pattern of development. We know very little about how visual impairment affects that pattern."

In the earliest stages of a baby's life, eye contact is an important channel of communication between parents and babies, who normally develop a dialogue of smiles and lookslong before language becomes important.

Later, parents use the direction in which their baby is looking to work out what it is paying attention to, and how to react.

But Ms Rattray will investigate what happens in cases where babies are visually impaired and these cues and opportunities for communication are not available.

Pretend play, in which the child, for example, feeds a toy from an empty jam jar, is another milestone in development. Ms Rattray will test whether visually impaired infants are able to draw on similarities of objects through touch alone, and whether they develop the ability for pretend play at the same age as sighted children.

Over the next three years, she plans to film the progress of 20 visually impaired babies and their parents, comparing the different combinations of sighted or blind parents with sighted or blind children.

Ms Rattray herself has been blind since birth, and the ESRC award, backed by Pounds 7,500 from the Royal National Institute for the Blind, will allow her to employ a part-time research assistant to time the recordings of various types of play.

The research will concentrate on the parent and infant playing through talking and touching, the parent and infant playing with a toy, and the infant playing with objects on its own.

"One of the things I hope will come out of it is some practical help for parents of visually impaired children," Ms Rattray said.

"It can be so important to them, for instance, to be told that if their baby does not smile, or seems unresponsive, it is not their fault. I don't want my research to be filed away in a drawer somewhere - I want it to be used."

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