Mothers of babies with severe head and facial deformities cuddle and smile at them less than those with normal infants. But, far from acknowledging this lack of nurturing behavior, the mothers express greater-than-average satisfaction with parenthood, a new study indicates.

The study was directed by Dr. R. Christopher Barden, a William T. Grant Foundation scholar at the University of Utah Medical Center.Its results, Barden says, confirm that infant attractiveness is an important element of the quality of mother-infant interactions.

"The surprising thing the study reveals is that the mothers are unaware or unwilling to admit that there may be problems relating to the child," Barden said. The U. psychologist, on leave from the medical center, is living in Minnesota.

Few mothers in the study acknowledged the lack of nurturing behavior. In fact, in questionnaires completed as part of the study, mothers of deformed infants claimed greater satisfaction with parenthood than those with normal children and reported more positive life experiences following their child's birth, Barden and his colleagues found.

However, videotaped interactions between 10 mothers and their four-month-old infants - five deformed and five normal - proved differently.

Each session with a mother and infant was divided into three segments - a 10-minute free-play period in which mothers were told to behave as they might in their own homes, a five-minute period in which mothers were asked to try to get their infants to vocalize and a three-minute period during which the infants were placed in a seat face-to-face with the mothers, who were instructed to imitate their babies' expressions and actions.

Barden said extensive analysis of the tapes revealed that the mothers of deformed babies touched them affectionately only one fifth as much as other mothers touched their normal infants. They spent only one third as much time demonstrating toys to the infants and smiled or laughed at them only half as much.

In turn, the deformed infants touched their mothers and smiled or laughed at them only one fourth as much as normal babies did. They cried more than twice as much and responded to their mother's voice only one fifth as much.

The findings suggest the mothers "are either unwilling to admit or unaware of the difficulties and stress imposed by their deformed child," Barden said. "This view is buttressed by several years of research with such families by our own group and others and by the recurrent finding that members of Western cultures tend to underestimate the importance of attractiveness in social interactions."

Barden believes that earlier research which was based simply on interview data may have to be looked at more critically.

"Researchers should actually be going to homes and schools to see how these (deformed) children are interacting and not simply rely on questionnaires and interviews done in medical settings," he said.

Barden's study also found that, when shown photographs of infants and children before and after craniofacial surgery, observers responded much more positively to the after-surgery photo. In fact, observers were more than three times as likely to say they'd consider adopting the child.

"The responses to the photographs are good news for afflicted children and their families," he said. "A major priority for future research should be to improve our ability to predict what kinds of surgical techniques with what kinds of patients lead to what magnitude of improvement - and at what risk."

Braden collaborated with Martin E. Ford of Stanford University and Kenneth Salyer, Marcy Rogers-Sal-yer and Gayle Jensen of the International Craniofacial Institute and the National Craniofacial Foundation, Dallas, Tex.

Parents of deformed children wanting more information on available surgical procedures can call the Intermountain Cranial Facial Team at Primary Children's Medical Center at 521-1221.