A few generations ago, we didn't think much about babies' brains. We knew about reflexes, such as the rooting reflex that causes a newborn to turn his head when you gently stroke his cheek. But for the most part, parents, physicians, and researchers thought of the newborn's brain as little more than a blank slate waiting to be written upon by his environment.
But the more we study infants, the more we realize that their brains and senses are remarkably active, even at a very young age. We can even get some indication of their personalities during the later stages of pregnancy. (Ask any new mother whose child seemed to be kicking field goals or doing gymnastic flips in the womb!)
Some of the clues to babies' brain development are obvious; others are quite subtle. While research psychologists and pediatricians use all sorts of sophisticated electronic equipment to study babies' brains in action, you can get some of the same basic information with little more than a set of keys, some makeup, and a bit of patience.
Here are a few things you can do that will help you see the incredible ways in which your infant is able to use his brain to handle the challenges of early life. I like to think of these as games that the two of you can play together. The early ones are extremely simple, but if you know what to look for, they can also be extremely revealing.
Long before your baby can talk, his expressions and physical reactions tell you a lot about his personality and developing sense of recognition. One thing body language communicates is a baby's temperament, which reflects his personal style and sensitivities. For example, while all babies cry, some do so more easily or keep crying longer than others. Understanding your child's temperament will make it easier for you to care for him -- if you know he's sensitive, you can help shield him from excess stimulation.
Hold your baby with your left hand under his body and your right hand supporting his head. Quietly say his name. Pay close attention to his muscles and his appearance. Becoming tense, arching his back, or spitting up are signs that he's feeling overwhelmed. If that's the case, decrease the stimuli around him. Dim the lights. Shut off the radio. Lower your voice to a whisper and say his name again.
Odds are that he'll turn his head in your direction. This is a reflex action. It occurs even in the dark, which tells us that the turn isn't simply a way for him to locate the source of the sound with his eyes. If you pay close attention, you'll see that your newborn moves differently than older children. Instead of responding immediately, he waits a few seconds and then turns his head very slowly.
If your child is comfortable, keep talking quietly to him. Tell him how smart and handsome he is. Impress him with the fact that his brain will double in size over the next year, and will double once again by the time he's 6.
While you're talking, watch his eyes. Does he stop looking around and focus on your face? (If he doesn't, don't worry. He may just be tired. Try it again another day.) Move your face to his left while you speak to him, and he'll probably follow you with his eyes. This is an important accomplishment. Researchers have shown that a 2-day-old infant looks at his mother's face longer and differently than he looks at the faces of other women. In that brief time, your baby has figured out who you are.