by Anya Dunham, PhD
Some educational philosophies, such as Montessori, recommend having a mirror in playroom for babies and toddlers. Others, like RIE, discourage the use of mirrors. Let's see what science says.
Are mirrors necessary or beneficial for babies? Should your baby have one? Some educational philosophies, such as Montessori, recommend having a mirror in baby’s playroom (for example, here's an article on mirrors for babies by How We Montessori). Others, like RIE, discourage the use of mirrors (listen to Janet Lansbury touch upon Magda Gerber's view on mirrors in this episode of Unruffled) . Let's take a look at what science says.
You might want to add a mirror to a baby’s play space for several reasons: for example, to encourage movement or interaction with the reflection, to add visual interest or a sense of space to the room, to expand the repertoire of activities, or to help your baby begin recognizing themselves. Here, I will focus on the latter: Are mirrors necessary for the baby to understand the concept of “self”?
No direct test can tell us with full certainty when babies begin to recognize “This is me!”. The way scientists typically test self-recognition ability is the “rouge test”, or Gallup’s mirror test1,2: will the child whose nose has been discreetly marked with rouge try to wipe it off when they see their reflection in the mirror? Typically developing Western children who see mirrors in everyday life begin doing this between 15 and 24 months.3-5
Interestingly, toddlers who have not had any experience with mirrors (for example, those from nomadic Bedouin families or whose parents deliberately kept mirrors away) still tend to pass the rouge test, either right away or after a brief exploration of the mirror.6,7 What’s more, several animal species can pass the test as long as they've had prior experience with reflective surfaces: chimps, orangutans, dolphins, and Asian elephants.8
This suggests that mirror self-recognition is likely more of a practical skill than an indicator of a sense of self.9
It was previously believed that mirror recognition was a milestone to be achieved before children can feel and express concern for others. But recent work is beginning to show that even at 3 months (!), babies can become concerned about, and explore, others’ distress.10 Concern for others begins early, much before the baby can begin to master the practical skill of mirror recognition.
Having a dedicated mirror for babies and toddlers doesn’t appear to speed up self-recognition or a sense of self vs others. Babies are wired to move, explore, connect, and care for others, with or without the mirrors.
If you decide to add a mirror to your baby's or toddler's play space, consider your child's age in where you place the mirror.
If you are an Early Childhood Educator working in an Infant room, it might be best to not place mirrors in busy areas. Babies might find it overstimulating to simultaneously see reflections of themselves and multiple other children that are appear to be moving in different directions all at once.