10 Things Science Is Teaching Us about Babies

Every time a child is born, parents experience the miracle of new life.  Then the hard work begins.  The process of raising a baby from newborn to infant to toddler is time consuming and emotionally exhausting.  And parents need help – lots of help.  Fortunately, science is helping parents out all the time.  Research studies performed on infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are helping us all to understand our babies better and to know how to help them learn and grow.  Here are 10 things that science is teaching us about babies.   

1.        Their Brains Are like Computers

Have you ever wondered how a baby tells the difference between a ball and a balloon?  A lion, tiger, and cat?  As babies grow, we teach them our language by labelling the objects they see.  Sometimes we point out objects in daily life, other times we look through picture books.  It’s almost impossible to point out and label every object a baby will ever see.  Recent studies at Northwestern University have shown that babies are adept at categorizing these items on their own.  After being shown just a few items in a group, babies were able to successfully label other similar items.  In other words, they could encounter an object that they had never seen before and correctly determine which category it belonged in.  That’s how they can see a baseball cap on one person’s head and correctly identify a cowboy hat on another head.  In order to do this, their brains are operating at the same level as a super computer!  Find out how to help your baby learn her first 100 words!

2.        They Can Perform Cost-Benefit Analysis

Just like adults, babies are able to weigh the pros and cons of completing a task.  We know that babies are social creatures and that they are eager to learn about their environment.  As such, they love to follow adults around and help them out.  Recent experiments show that babies are less likely to help out when doing so would be difficult or inconvenient for them.  In the study, an adult was helplessly looking for a block to complete a tower.  Babies were given the block so that they could hand it to the adult.  For some babies the block was lightweight, and for others it was heavy.  Babies given a heavy block were much less likely to help out.  The babies with the light block were clearly eager to help out, because the task was easy.  However, the perceived benefit of helping the adult outweighed the effort required for babies with a heavy block to help out.

3.        Babies Know Who’s Boss but Don’t Like a Bully

In an experiment at the University of California Irvine, toddlers were shown a puppet show where one puppet was clearly deferential to the other.  The puppets were going in opposite directions through a scene and met in the middle.  One puppet bowed and stepped aside so the other, dominant, puppet could pass by.  After the show was over, toddlers were shown both puppets and asked to pick one that they preferred.  The toddlers overwhelmingly preferred the dominant puppet.  Even at a young age, toddlers are capable of understanding hierarchies in society.  They choose to ally themselves with the most dominant figures.

In the same experiment, the puppet show was changed so that the dominant puppet pushed the submissive puppet out of the way.  Instead of preferring the dominant puppet, the toddlers this time preferred the submissive puppet.  In other words, the toddlers understood that some behavior is not acceptable, and they showed empathy for those who are mistreated.

4.        Sesame Street and Dora aren’t the Best Teachers

The amount a baby has to learn in the first three years of life is incredible.  One of the most important skills a baby learns is language.  Babies and young children are incredibly adaptable to learning new languages.  They begin to pick out the words of their primary language at a very young age.  Recent research has shown that language learning in babies is best performed in one-on-one social interactions.  In the study, babies being raised in an English-speaking home were given 12 language lessons in Mandarin.  The lesson was either in person or through a video.  Whether the lesson was given in person or on a screen, the tutor used the same tones, eye contact, and engagement.  However, babies showed much better comprehension of the new language if they were taught by an in–person tutor.  In other words, as educational as some children’s television programs can be, babies still learn best through social interaction.

5.        Babies Need Back-and-Forth Conversation


Another way babies learn language is through back and forth conversation.  A recent study recorded the lives of children aged zero to four to see how they experienced language throughout the day.  Were they exposed to a lot of television, radio, and media?  Or did they listen to their parents talking or reading stories?  Or were they engaged in conversations with their caretakers?  The study learned that those who engaged in back-and-forth conversations with their caregivers had better language development.  Additional studies support the same findings and note that having conversations with adults leads babies to build higher vocabularies.  In other words, hearing an adult speak is not enough.  Even if a parent tells the baby a story directly, the baby needs to have interaction and input into the storytelling process.  In addition, it’s not enough for two parents to engage in a conversation together.  They need to bring the child into the process for maximum learning.

6.        Babies Love to Make Eye Contact

In addition to engaging our babies, we should make eye contact with them.  Even if they don’t understand the words we are saying, strong engagement using eye contact can help a baby understand our message.  Researches use brain waves to determine if two people are communicating well with each other.  If a person tells a story, the listener’s brain waves will start to match the brain waves of the storyteller.  The more two people’s brain waves match, the better the communication.  Babies’ brain waves were monitored while they listened to a story told by a woman who was either making eye contact or looking somewhere else.  The babies averaged eight months old, too young to fully comprehend the words of the story.  However, the brain waves of the babies who made eye contact were by far more in sync with the story teller’s brain waves than those of the babies who had not had eye contact.

7.        Your Baby Was Designed to Love Music

A study at Harvard is trying to dive into the reason why we love to sing to our babies and why our babies love to hear us sing.  The answer: attention.  Throughout history, babies have wanted more attention from their parents than their parents are able to give.  Sometimes that was because parents were working in the fields, hunting and gathering, or cooking.  In our modern world, it may be because parents need to make an important phone call, send an email for work, or go grocery shopping.  Either way, parents had a to-do list that still needed to get done, whether our babies want us to work on it or not.  What was the solution?  Singing to the baby.  A song can be a soothing way for parents to interact with their babies because it proves they are paying attention.  The tempo and tune can be adjusted for the baby’s mood and circumstances.  The baby feels like a connected part of the activity, and the adult gets high priority tasks completed. 

8.        Sensitive Babies can Rise to the Top (or Sink to the Bottom)

Some babies are just more sensitive and difficult.  They cry more and are timid around new experiences.  It can be more difficult for parents to deal with this personality type.  However, studies have shown that when these babies grow up, they have the potential to be more successful than their peers, but only if their parents were attentive to their needs as babies.  Because of their sensitivity to the world, these babies are also sensitive to the care they are receiving from their parents.  So if their needs are met in a loving and gentle way, they have a greater ability than other children to channel that love into productive behavior as they grow up.  They were found to be cooperative, assertive, and self-controlled.  On the other hand, if the sensitive babies are met with insensitivity, coldness, or even hostility from their parents, they are likely to turn into difficult children, most likely to have behavioral problems.   Find out 7 Things You Need to Know About Having a Fussy Baby.

9.        Babies Are Incredibly Near Sighted

It’s been common knowledge for years that newborns are incredibly near sighted.  Recently, a study performed at the University of Oslo found just how close you have to get to a newborn baby for her to see your facial expressions.  Most previous studies had only measured the baby’s reaction to a still photograph or object.  Those studies allowed researchers to see how quickly a newborn’s vision blurred as an object moved farther away.  In a recent study, the University of Oslo study edited photos of adults making various faces so that they mimicked what a newborn would see at 30, 60, and 120 centimeters.  Adults were asked to identify the facial expression in each picture.  They were unable to do so at 60 and 120 centimeters.  As such, it is reasonable to conclude that a baby would not be able to distinguish a facial expression past 30 centimeters.  Consequently, this is the distance their mother’s face would be from the newborn’s while breastfeeding. 

10.   Babies Learn Helpfulness Through Observation

Shortly around the time they turn one, most babies start to imitate the adults around them.  They want to help out by handing objects to adults and sharing their toys.  But the desire to be helpful may not be innate.  New studies have found that it is learned through observation.  Researchers at the University of Munster and Free University Berlin in Germany showed 16 month old babies an adult building a tower out of blocks.  Some of the blocks were out of reach.  One group of babies observed a second adult hand the first adult a block.  Other babies saw a second adult that did not help.  The babies who saw an adult model helping behavior were more likely to help out the other adult.  A similar experiment tested whether the babies would assist the adult even if the adult didn’t need help.  In this experiment, the adult had access to all the necessary blocks.  Babies were less likely to help when they perceived that the adult didn’t need their help. 

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