Information for the science-minded parent
© 2009-2014 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 does normal baby sleep look like? How frequently should a baby feed? How do you get a baby to try a new food?
In these pages, I review research from a wide range of fields--including
anthropology, medicine, psychology, evolutionary biology, and
If you have a new baby, you might want to start with these articles:
Otherwise, you can look up articles by topic (below).
Baby food and breastfeeding
Breastfeeding families can find a variety of information about lactation in this collection of articles.
For thoughts about the timing or scheduling of feeding, see my article, "The infant feeding schedule."
Introducing solids can be tricky, but you might make the transition easier by exposing babies to flavors before they begin weaning, or even before they are born. For more information, see these articles about
prenatal learning of food preferences
impact of flavors in breast milk and baby formula.
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.
For information about what causes colic, see this guide.
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.
Language and communicating with babies
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 being involved in two-way "conversations" with their caregivers.
In fact, 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.
Does your voice change when you address a baby? It does for many people, and babies like it. The slow, repetitive, musical style of speaking is called "infant directed speech," and it appears to help babies understand our emotions. There is also evidence it helps babies learn how to talk.
In addition, it makes a difference how we relate to our babies. Studies suggest that making eye contact during conversation helps babies "tune in." It's a signal that tells babies we attempting to convey something meaningful.
And what we talk about matters too. When we accurately label emotions and thoughts -- sharing our insights about how our children feel, as well as how others feel -- kids tend to develop more secure relationships and stronger social skills.
When do babies say their first words? Some babies begin to understand the meaning of words as early as 6 months. For these babies, it's possible that certain babbled syllables, like "ba-ba" are attempts to speak specific words (like "bottle"). But other don't start talking until they're much older. Around the world, most babies have begun speaking their first words by 11-13 months. For more information, see this article about the development of baby speech.
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.
Learning, awareness, and memory
Once, the Western medical establishment claimed that the mind of the newborn was a blank slate. Today we know better.
As I note below, babies are born with strong biases for social interaction and social learning. Babies also show surprising intellectual abilities. For instance, clever experiments reveal that your baby’s mathematical mind is
working even before she can talk.
What about claims that babies can't remember? In
this post for my blog on Psychology Today
I put this strange myth to rest.
Wondering how many hours your baby should sleep? Looking for evidence-based tips about solving baby sleep problems? Or just a savvy, cross-cultural guide to what's normal? Check out this collection of
evidence-based articles on baby sleep.
And if you are concerned about sudden infant death syndrome, see this overview of the
science of SIDS and these
research-based tips for reducing the risk of SIDS.
Social intelligence and baby development
At birth, babies are already primed to interact with their caregivers.
Research reveals that mothers and babies who exchange "loving looks and coos" actually synchronize their heart rhythms (Feldman et al 2011). And babies raised by sensitive, responsive caregivers are more likely to develop secure attachment relationships.
But babies don't just attend to you. Babies also pay attention to the interactions of third parties, and by 10 months seem to understand that some people have higher social status than others (Thomsen et al 2011).
By 12 to 14 months, many
babies start showing signs of empathy and empathic concern for other people.
They want to help strangers (Warneken et al 2007) and they consider the perspectives of other people (Upshaw 2015; Poulin-Dubois et al 2011; Zmyj et al 2010).
Is it helpful to understand these things? 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.
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.
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 evidence-based guide to 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.
References: Baby development
Feldman R, Magori-Cohen R, Galili G, Singer M, Louzoun Y. 2011.
Mother and infant coordinate heart rhythms through episodes of
interaction synchrony. Infant Behav Dev. 34(4):569-77.
Poulin-Dubois D, Brooker I, Polonia A. 2011. Infants prefer to
imitate a reliable person. Infant Behav Dev. 34(2):303-9.
Thomsen L, Frankenhuis WE, Ingold-Smith M, Carey S. 2011. Big and
mighty: preverbal infants mentally represent social dominance.
Upshaw MB, Kaiser CR, Sommerville JA. 2015. Parents' empathic
perspective taking and altruistic behavior predicts infants' arousal
to others' emotions. Front Psychol. 6:360.
Warneken F and Tomasello M. 2007. Helping and cooperation at 14 months of age. Infancy 11(3): 217-294.
Zmyj N, Buttelmann D, Carpenter M, Daum MM. 2010. The reliability
of a model influences 14-month-olds' imitation. J Exp Child Psychol.
For additional references, follow the links the original articles. They included full citations of the research under discussion.
photo of mother and infant ©iStockphoto.com/Rohit Seth
Content of "Baby development and parenting for the science-minded" last modified 2/2014