Baby development:

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 neuroscience.

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 the prenatal learning of food preferences and the 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. 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.

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.

Are babies self-conscious? Maybe. I discuss the development of self consciousness in this blog post for BabyCenter.

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. 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.

By 12 to 14 months, many babies start showing signs of empathy and empathic concern for other people. They want to help strangers and they consider the perspectives of other people.

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

For references, follow the links the original articles. They included full citations of the research under discussion.

photo of mother and infant © Seth

Content of "Baby development and parenting for the science-minded" last modified 2/2014

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