Sunny Days Blog

Imitation Beyond Flattery: The First Way We Learn


Oscar Wilde once said that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." He was probably right, but imitation, besides being a great compliment, is the start of all learning. Babies and toddlers are particularly well prepared to use this cognitive strategy from the minute they are born.

The literature reveals that mothers start imitating their infant’s facial expression practically immediately after birth. The child’s response, even if it's not a totally accurate imitation of mom’s face, triggers the mother’s repetition of the action. This becomes the first instance of unspoken social communication.

As the child development advances, imitation includes accurate facial expressions and sounds such as smiles and laughter, hand movements and gestures that increase communication, most notably; reaching with both or one hand, pointing in the direction of a desired object or person, clapping and waving goodbye, all of which should be evident by 10 or 11 months of age.

Along with these movements that are the foundation for non-verbal communication, the child also initiates the production and repetition of sounds, which include cooing, babbling and the ability to say meaningful simple words, of one or two syllables in length. This  starts between 10 and 13 months of age, such as “Dah-Dah” for daddy or “Bah” for bottle.

As adults, we observe these developmental achievements with a sense of joy, pride and often amazement, but we really do not question why or how does this happen.

It is only when these indicators of development fail to emerge, that we start to worry and look for help, and that is when developmental practitioners enter the life of the family, as the parents look for assistance to bring their child’s development back on track. And one of the first strategies the parents will learn about, is imitation.

Babies and toddlers can and will imitate what they see and hear and because the control of their little bodies is not perfect, the imitations will be approximations of movement and sounds which may be unclear as they start to do it, but with practice, they will become clearer and often very specific. They will also be the tools the child uses to navigate the environment. 

But how do they learn to imitate? What is it that allows him to do this?

The answer lies in the anatomy of the brain.

In humans and primates, there is a group of nerve cells that are called Mirror Neurons. They were first discovered in the early 1990 by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team. These mirror neurons were located in the ventral premotor cortex of the macaque monkey. This is the area that memorizes and then plans the movements that are needed to complete any given action. But the interesting fact was that the neurons not only fired when the monkey was executing a motor action, they fired identically when the monkey was watching either a human or another monkey execute a motor action that was familiar.

Later, mirror neurons were also discovered in the inferior parietal lobule, located above the ears but towards the top of the head,  but this group; which is strongly associated with the hearing system and the reception and coordination of visual and balance information, codes for the outcome desired of any movement, not for the planning of movement sequence itself.

When the research advanced to humans, it was found that we have the same system in our brain, and it is what allows us to learn by copying what others do and in this sense, it is the first and strongest tool for learning and advancing cognition.

Professionals who dedicate their practice to advancing child development need to be thoroughly familiar with this function of the brain, and the first step they need to take is to start all teaching by imitating a movement or sound the child already knows. Once  this is imitated, slowly increase the complexity of the action or sound to allow the mirror neurons of the child’s brain to do the work they are meant to do, which is to support all learning effort.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash


Carola d'Emery, PT, PhD

Carola, a native of Chile, is responsible for the supervision of all trainings created by the Sunny Days’ Clinical Education Team, as well as for the creation of new trainings focused on refining the clinical skills of the Sunny Days’ practitioners in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and California. She also trains Early Interventionists via live webinars that are announced on our site. A bilingual English/Spanish Physical Therapist with more than 30 years of experience in the clinical field, Ms. d’Emery is also a former member of the New Jersey State Interagency Coordinating Council. Dr. d’Emery joined Sunny Days in 2007 as Targeted Clinical Educator, and became the Director of Training and Clinical Quality Assurance in 2019. She has a PhD in Movement Sciences from Columbia University and a MPT in Kinesiology from the School of Medicine of the University of Chile. She is a member of the International Society of Early Intervention and of the Chilean Society of Kinesiology.