Baby development and parenting for the science-minded
© 2009-2012 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Researchers who study baby development aim to understand one of the world's most intriguing stories: How the human mind comes online.
The discoveries are fascinating for their own sake. But they also offer many practical insights for parents.
What are normal baby sleep patterns? How frequently should a baby feed? How do you get a baby to try a new food?
In these pages, I review a wide range of research that can help you understand and make decisions about your baby.
If you have a new baby, you might want to start with these articles about
• When to feed newborns
• Newborn sleep
• The social mind of the newborn
• Coping with postpartum stress
You might also be interested in this article about newborn senses of taste and smell, and a post I wrote for the BabyCenter blog about the importance of affectionate touch for an infant's development.
For babies older than one month, check out these offerings.
Baby development and the social mind
Once, the Western medical establishment believed that the mind of the newborn was a blank slate. Today we know better.
At birth, babies are already tuned into the social world. They can identify voices and faces, and they are sensitive to your efforts to communicate with them. To learn more about this
starting point for baby development, click here.
Babies also show a preference for people who talk to them in a special way, a musical style of speaking that researchers call “infant-directed speech” (see below).
And, by 12 to 14 months, many
babies start showing signs of empathy and empathic concern for other people.
Are babies self-conscious? Maybe. I discuss the development of self consciousness in this blog post for BabyCenter.
Is it helpful to understand your baby’s cognitive development? I think so.
Research suggests that
that babies benefit when their parents treat them as individuals with minds of their own.
This “mind-minded” approach to parenting is associated with more secure attachment relationships. It may also help babies learn about the emotions and mental processes of other people.
And what about the folks who tell you your baby can't remember anything? In
this post for my blog on Psychology Today
I put this strange myth to rest.
Crying, fussing, and colic
All babies cry. But some do it a lot more than others. For an overview and evidence-based tips, see these articles about
crying, colic, and fussing.
And if you've got a difficult baby, check out my blog post
about great outcomes for difficult babies who've been raised by sensitive, responsive parents.
Talking to babies
As noted above, newborns also more interested in listening to people who speak a special way--that slow, repetitive, musical style of speech that many people adopt naturally when they talk to babies. This
“infant-directed speech” helps communicate the emotional meaning of your messages.
It may also
help babies learn how to talk.
Just how do babies learn to talk? Cross-cultural studies suggest that some babies can learn language in a rather passive way -- by merely listening to adults talk. But other research shows that babies benefit from social interaction. One of the most important predictors of a baby's language development may be the
amount of time he spends in conversation with an older, competent speaker.
What about baby sign language?
Some people have claimed that we can give baby development a boost by teaching infants to communicate with gestures. These claims are not supported by the latest research. However, it's plausible that "baby sign language" improves communication between parents and infants, and this may benefit the parent-child relationship. To learn more, check out this article about the
science of baby signing.
how many hours your baby should sleep?
How to get him to sleep?
Or whether or not
bed-sharing with babies is safe?
Check out this collection of
evidence-based articles on baby sleep.
Researchers are still struggling to understand the causes of sudden infant death syndrome. But some points seem pretty clear.
It appears that SIDS victims have trouble awakening when something potentially life-threatening (like a severe episode of sleep apnea) happens during sleep (Franco et al 2004). It’s also evident that a variety of biological and environmental factors put babies at greater risk. For more information, see this overview of the
science of SIDS.
In addition, check out these
research-based tips for reducing the risk of SIDS.
Stress in babies
We know that acute, chronic stress can affect baby development. We also know that the babies with the healthiest stress response systems have parents who are sensitive and responsive to their needs. But what about the little stuff--the everyday stressors?
Should we soothe our babies with a quiet touch, or do babies prefer more stimulation--like eye contact, rocking, and talk? And is it better to change that wet diaper, or let her sleep through it?
Research suggests that babies like multisensory stimulation, and maybe you can wait on that diaper. Check out this article on
everyday stress in babies.
How often should babies feed? Several major medical organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that parents feed babies “on cue,” that is, whenever babies show signs of hunger. This is a particularly good idea if you are breastfeeding. For the reasons why, see this article about the evolutionary, cross-cultural, and clinical evidence for
breastfeeding on cue.
The transition to solid foods
The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that parents to delay the introduction of solid foods until after 6 months. These organizations advise parents to begin with rice cereal, and then introduce other foods gradually—-one at a time, and in small amounts (Finocchi et al 2006).
This cautious procedure helps parents identify any food(s) that produce an allergic reaction. But what about the “Yech!” reaction?
What to do about picky eaters
Allergic reactions are relatively rare. Facial expressions of disgust and dislike are much more common. When babies seem to dislike the new foods we give them, what should we do? For answers, see this evidence-based article,
"Baby food secrets: How to get babies to eat new foods."
And keep in mind that some of these foods aren’t really new. Research suggests that food flavors can cross the placenta and that fetuses become familiar with the foods their mothers consume during pregnancy. Food flavors also make their way into breast milk.
These early flavor experiences influence what solid foods your baby likes or dislikes. For more information, see these articles about the
prenatal learning of food preferences
impact of flavors in breast milk and baby formula.
Popular books about baby development tend to focus on motor skills and speech. But there is a lot of other stuff going on in your baby’s brain. Clever experiments reveal that your baby’s mathematical mind is working even before she can talk.
Babies as young as 3 months can distinguish between different quantities, like 4 versus 8. Older babies can make finer distinctions (e.g., 8 versus 12), and they can perform other tasks as well, including simple feats of subtraction and addition. To read more about this fascinating aspect of baby development, see my article on
what babies know about numbers.
Toilet training: When are babies ready?
In most non-Western cultures, people start potty training in infancy. Is this something you’d like to try? Check out this article on
the science of infant toilet training.
You might also be interested in this
experimentally-tested technique for training older babies.
What about psychological damage? What about Freud? The idea that early potty training causes psychological or behavioral problems has been discredited. For a review of the evidence, see this article about
the timing of toilet training.
So parents should feel free to choose the timing that best suits their own families. For help, check out my article on
choosing the right age for toilet training.
It reviews the advantages and disadvantages of training at different stages of baby development, from the newborn period through the “terrible twos.”
References: Baby development
Fiocchi A, Assa'ad A, Bahna S; Adverse Reactions to Foods Committee; American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. 2006. Food allergy and the introduction of solid foods to infants: a consensus document. Adverse Reactions to Foods Committee, American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 97(1):10-20.
Content last modified 11/12
photo of mother and infant ©iStockphoto.com/Rohit Seth