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.
Baby See, Baby Do
Age: 8 Weeks Old
During the first few weeks you may notice that your baby is looking at your face quite intently. When this happens, try a new game: Stick out your tongue. Your baby will probably do the same thing. Then try wrinkling your brow. About 50 percent of babies this age will mimic you.
You can try other expressions as well. Stick out your lower lip in a pout. Open your mouth and eyes wide. In each case, she will probably change her own expression to try to match yours.
If you'd like more evidence of how closely your several-week-old child is watching you, add another element to this game. Wait until your baby's awake and alert. Start talking to her and watch her eyes focus on your face. Then suddenly stop talking and keep your face frozen.
Watch your baby's reaction. She'll probably scan your face with her eyes, looking from your eyes to your mouth and back up again. Then she'll wrinkle her brow and, perhaps, stick out her lower lip in apparent frustration. Next, she'll move her face and arms, trying a variety of things to get you to respond to her.
This tells you how much she feels a part of your conversation with her, even though she doesn't understand your words. It also lets you know how important you are in her life and how highly attuned she is to your actions and expressions. Her reaction will show her nature as an active seeker of social activity, and not just a bystander to the interactions of those around her.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Age: 4 Months Old
To play this game, you'll need something new and exciting that your child will want to touch (I often use a set of keys) and a baby blanket. If you show your 4-month-old baby a shiny set of keys, he'll probably want to reach out and grab them. But if you show him the keys and then hide them under the blanket, he'll stop looking for them. It's as if the keys suddenly ceased to exist.
This tells you that the sophisticated idea that objects are still around even when they're out of sight -- what psychologists call "object permanence" -- doesn't make sense to him yet. By the time he's about 10 months old, it will. If you put the attractive item under the blanket, a baby this age will simply reach under the barrier to find it. He gets it: Objects (and people) can be hidden and still exist!
The Baby in the Mirror
Age: 10 Months Old
This is one of my favorite games because it's so simple and so revealing. All babies like to look at themselves in the mirror. But what do they see? A few years ago Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Ph.D., and Michael Lewis, Ph.D., came up with an elegant way to answer at least part of that question. You can try it when your baby is about 10 months old, and then repeat it every few months thereafter. All it takes is a mirror and a little lipstick.
Let your baby look at herself in the mirror for about a minute. Then pick her up, dot a small amount of lipstick on her nose or cheek, and place her in front of the mirror again. Most babies less than 12 months of age pay no attention to the smudge. A few smile or frown, indicating that they notice something is different.
Slightly older babies often pay close attention to the smudge. They may reach toward the mirror, demonstrating that they don't yet understand that they're looking at a reflection of themselves. By the age of 18 months, about half of all babies will notice the reflection and reach up to touch the smudge on their own face. This tells us that they not only recognize that the mark is out of place, but that they know they're looking at their own image.
With all of these games, it's important to keep in mind that there are tremendous differences among children who are developing normally. A sensitive newborn is not "better" or "worse" than a more easygoing baby. Similarly, a baby who touches the smudge of lipstick on his face a few weeks ahead of another is not necessarily "smarter."
Infants learn so much so quickly that they'll amaze you with new talents and skills almost daily. Since you're the expert on your baby, you can use this as a starting point to come up with your own games to enjoy the astonishing adventure of watching her mind bloom.
Contributing editor Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., is co-director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media and the author of five books on child development and parent-child communication.