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How Smart Is Your Baby?

On the surface, the 45-second video of 2-month-old Lulu gurgling away in an infant swing is no different from the countless other home movies that proud parents produce. There' a baby. There's cooing. And there's chubby-cheeked cuteness, of the sort that can reduce the most hardened cynic to a pile of "Aw, shucks" mush.

Examine the video closely, however, and what you'll see is a tiny thinker. In the clip, Lulu -- short for Lucia May-Phuong Porretta -- scrutinizes a reflection of herself in a circular mirror. She furrows her brow and sticks out her tongue. She gurgles and exclaims. She caps the performance by producing a magnificent, gummy smile. The video, sent to me by my pal (and Lulu's mom) Souris Hong-Porretta, captures the baby in a moment of focused exploration.

"A baby in that situation, at that age, is trying to pick up information about the physics of the room," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., a longtime child psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. "They're picking up motion, trying to understand layout. They're looking at angles. They're trying to understand height. In short, they're exploring and discovering."

At the tender age of 9 weeks, Lulu is showing signs of intelligence: assessing data, looking for patterns, making sense of her surroundings -- and, ultimately, developing the critical-thinking skills that she will one day employ in the classroom.

Smarter Than You Think

Talk about infant "intelligence" and many folks conjure images of baby flash cards and language videos. Store shelves are cluttered with products that allegedly improve cognitive development. And the media is saturated with reports about the I.Q.-enhancing effects of Mozart and discoveries that show that 6-month-olds can understand math. However, "there is no evidence that any of these products can improve a baby's intelligence," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., child psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Philosophical Baby, a new book that examines the world of infant consciousness. (For the record: Pigeons also can recognize images on flash cards. "It's not exactly high up in terms of skill," says Gopnik.)

Pamela High, M.D., who teaches pediatrics at Brown University and serves as a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), agrees. "There is no data suggesting that these things do anything to promote a child's development." In fact, the AAP recommends against any screen time for children under 2. "What is recommended is to spend time with your baby, talk to them, play with them and read to them," she says.

The good news is that babies are pretty darn smart to begin with. They're keen observers who can absorb important lessons on language, geometry, physics and psychology simply by examining what goes on around them. "We think of our children as empty vessels, that we have to open their heads and cram them full of information," says Hirsh-Pasek. "But a normal, nurturing environment where there are objects, actions, hugs, kisses, reciprocity -- you talk, I talk -- is teaching the baby everything the baby needs to know." Simply sitting in a high chair at the dinner table is chock full of important lessons for baby, she says. "They're learning to look people in the eye, they're hearing the clanking of dishes, they're learning that there are different colored foods, and they're hearing conversation in practice." Call it the lesson plan of life.