Sunny Days Blog

Imitation Beyond Flattery: The First Way We Learn


Oscar Wilde once said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. While he was probably right, imitation, besides being a great compliment, is also the start of all learning. Babies and toddlers inherently use this cognitive strategy from birth.

In this post, we detail what imitation is and how we learn from it.


What is imitation and why is it important?

Imitation is the act of copying what others do and can consist of reproducing facial expressions, movements, or sounds. This is an incredibly important skill to develop, as we learn best by doing throughout our lives. In typical early childhood development, infants should be mimicking facial expressions and vowel sounds. Later, they should grow to imitate words, play, and movements.


Imitation as Communication

Mothers imitate their baby’s facial expressions. The child’s response, even if it's not a completely accurate imitation of mom’s face, triggers the mother’s repetition of the action. Thus, imitation is the first instance of unspoken social communication.


Learning by Imitation

Imitation is an instrument for learning in all areas of development. As a child grows, imitation can include:

  • Accurate facial expressions, such as smiles
  • Sounds, such as laughter
  • Hand movements and gestures that increase communication, such as raising the arms to indicate desire to be picked up, or reaching for/pointing to a desired object.


Imitation and Child Development

By age 10 or 11 months, your child should be able to reach with one or both hands, point to a desired object or person, clap, and wave goodbye.

Along with basic communicative movements—the foundation for non-verbal communication—children also begin repeating sounds, which include cooing, babbling, and saying meaningful simple words of one or two syllables.

Speaking simple words usually starts between ages 10 and 13 months, and typically consists of phrases such as “dah-dah” for daddy or “bah” for bottle.


What if my child doesn't imitate?

As adults, we observe our children’s developmental achievements with a sense of joy, pride, and often amazement, but we don’t question why or how this growth happens.

Babies and toddlers can, and will, mimic what they see and hear. Because control over their little bodies is not perfect, imitations will be approximations of movement and sounds. These may be unclear in the beginning, but with practice they will become clearer and often very specific. They will also be the tools the child uses to navigate their environment.

It is only when we don’t see these growth indicators that we start to worry and look for help. If you are concerned that your child isn’t showing typical development skills, look for early intervention services in your state of residence, speak with your child’s health care provider, or seek an early childhood development practitioner—such as an occupational or speech-language therapist—to help your child’s skills improve. Imitation is one of the first strategies parents learn about in these sessions.


How do babies learn to imitate?

The answer to how we learn to imitate lies in the anatomy of the brain. In humans and primates, there is a group of nerve cells called Mirror Neurons. Mirror neurons are located in the ventral premotor cortex and were first discovered in the early 1990s by Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team while researching macaque monkeys. The ventral premotor cortex memorizes and plans movements needed to complete actions. Interestingly, the neurons not only fire when executing a motor action, they fire identically when watching someone perform a similar function.

Later, mirror neurons were also discovered in the inferior parietal lobule, located above the ears and towards the top of the head. This group of mirror neurons is strongly associated with hearing, coordinating visual and balance information, along with codes for the outcome desired of any movement. However, they do not plan movement sequences.

Mirror neurons allow us to learn by copying what others do. In this sense, it is the first and strongest tool for learning   throughout our lives.

Professionals who dedicate their practice to advancing child development must 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 the imitation process is established, the practitioner and family can slowly increase the complexity of actions or sounds demonstrated to allow the child's mirror neurons to work and support the learning effort.



We hope this post helps you facilitate early communication with your baby. If imitation and mimicking is difficult for your child, feel free to contact us to schedule an appointment.



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 New Jersey Chapter of the American Physical Therapist Association.