Interview with professor Maya Gratier: "We should sing to babies"

Interview with professor Maya Gratier: "We should sing to babies" picture

The article was created within the H2020 EDUC-SHARE project framework (Working Package 8 "Dissemination and communication”, Task 8.2 “Internships for student journalists in genuinely scientific environment”).


"I never thought I would dedicate my entire life to babies," revealed the head of the BabyLab at Nanterre University and professor, Maya Gratier. From obtaining her doctorate in Psychology at University of Paris Descartes, to completing her postdoctoral work in Los Angeles, Gratier is now leading research laboratory dedicated to studying questions relating to the development of infants and young children.

Let´s start from the beginning. What made you decide to start the Babylab at Nanterre University?

When I came to the university, I was the only one in the psychology department who studied infants. I focused specifically on how infants create their first relationships, through acoustic communication. Then my colleague joined in and the small team of the BabyLab was formed. Ten years ago, when we moved to the Laboratory of Ethology, we decided to create a space, where parent could bring their infants and we wo would be able to collect data about them. Thanks to funding, we were able to build the lab. Initially we had just computer and camera, but them we bought an eye tracking system and them we slowly got more and more equipped. And soon after, we became a team of four people.

If someone wants to join your research team, how can they do it?

Research in the laboratory is mainly intended for doctoral students and master’s students, who are planning to continue to doctoral study at the university. The rules are set this way because working here takes a lot of steps. First you must have the ethical approval of the project, then you must find the families with babies who would be able to come to the lab. This step is always a bit difficult for us because they have to come to the campus, outside of Paris and the participation is usually not paid.

You really have to work for it. So, master’s students usually do not have the time to do all that. Sometimes they can get a short internship here.

In case someone wants their child to participate, what are the steps they have to take?

It depends on the research. According on what we are studying we need the children to be a certain age. For example, we need them to be able to walk…Sometimes we have to inform parent with children who have atypical development, that we cannot take them in, which is disappointing. But in case the child is not suitable for the study, we keep their name in our folder and if we have a suitable study for them in the future, we contact them.

Other than that, all parents must sign consent on the study, and it must be approved by the ethical committee.

Have you ever done research on children with any type of disability?

I did some work on babies with high risk of autism, not in this lab, but in one I was in before. On Nanterre university we´ve done some research about babies whose mothers had disorders.

What brought you to studying babies, even in previous laboratories?

I have never thought I would spent my whole life studying babies. (smile) My interest came from passion in Psychology, consciousness, and human relations. My initial question was on consciousness, as I was studying philosophy. I was also interested in aesthetics and the experience of beauty. Somehow all that led me to babies.

I was working with a professor, who inspired me, and I stayed really close to him – I am still close to him, he is now 92 years old. It was him who made me realise studying babies is a good way to understand human mind, how social relation shape us from the youngest age and aesthetics, specifically music.

Let´s circle back to the topic of BabyLab. How does your typical at workday look like?

To tell you the truth, there is no typical day and I kind of regret that. (laugh) When I was younger academic, my days used to have a typical routine. Now they are just full of small tasks and constantly changing.

Mostly I am in meetings, having zoom calls, answering emails, sorting out administrative problems. When I am in the BabyLab, I manage the data and rarely have time to collect them or write something. But occasionally I meet a family in the lab and explain them the project. When working with babies you have to block out at least half a day, because the time depends on the mood of the baby, if its hungry, sleepy…

Your studies focused on how children perceive music. What does such research look like?

You can for example compare how children reacts to two different songs, or for music and speech. And then you use the eye tracking system and measure how attentive they are to a person who is speaking and compare it to the person who is singing.

But what we have usually done, because we conduct our studies in an environment and situations that are as natural as possible, is we had the mother sing and then analyse it. We videotaped it and then did the long process of coding the information.

What did you find out?

Infants are more attentive to someone who is singing rather than speaking – they look at them longer and they can also recognise certain parts of the song by the age of three months. I am a big believer, as well as other scientists, singing to babies is really beneficial, both for the baby and for the mother.

What new is coming for BabyLab and the department of Psychology?

Right now, we are hoping to start new research in September, but we are waiting to get funding. We are also planning a science conference in June with our masters’ program students, which will help them learn how to communicate scientific findings to wider audience and we are preparing a new website.

What will the website present to users?

On Nanterre university, we were the first ones to offer master’s program specialised od psychology studies of infants. The whole masters project is complex, and we wanted to present it through the website.


Author: Johana Ryšavá


“The project EDUC-SHARE has received funding from the European Union´s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101017526.”