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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.

The Brain at Birth

When Karen Walsh-Nguyen, a real estate agent in Ladera Ranch, California, brought home her newborn, Claire, the baby was fussy. She would whimper; getting her to sleep required Olympian effort. Walsh-Nguyen's mother, Mary Anne Walsh, suggested the baby might be bored. "I said, 'How can she be bored? She's 10 days old!'" says Karen. "But my mom picked her up and started walking around and showing her things. She'd say, 'This is a couch. This is a flower.'" The result? "The baby loved it," she chuckles. "Claire was so attentive. Afterward, she'd be so tired, she would fall right asleep."

For hundreds of years, scientists thought infants were little more than highly demanding vegetables. But over the past four decades, as the field of child cognitive study has flourished, research has proven otherwise. "Babies are quite clever," says Hirsh-Pasek, who is the author of almost a dozen books on child development, including the award-winning Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. "They're taking in all of this information and processing it, searching for patterns." Baby Claire and baby Lulu weren't just passively gazing -- they were hard at work developing the synapses that will one day be useful in understanding language, geometry and human psychology.

The infant brain at birth is a disorganized array of billions of nerve cells known as neurons. (Imagine the tracks of a toy train in a jumbled pile on the floor.) As the baby has new experiences, the neurons react and send messages to one another via pathways called synapses. (Now imagine connecting one piece of track to another.) As sensations are repeated -- the sound of a mother's voice, the soft touch of a favorite blanket -- these synapses are further solidified. (A functional stretch of train track has now been put together.) Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and mother of three who details the brain's development process in her highly approachable book Your Child's Growing Mind, says that you can almost watch this as it occurs. "Put a dangling toy in a crib over the baby's head," she says. "If they accidentally strike it and it moves, you can practically see them forging the connections to try to make it move again." The train is now chugging down the track.

During the first 6 months of life, countless connections are made. Within hours of birth, an infant can recognize his mother's face. Within a few weeks, he's imitating mom's facial expressions -- a sign, writes Gopnik in The Philosophical Baby, that your newborn has not only mapped out the emotions on your face and mimicked them, but is experiencing those emotions as well. When he smiles, it's because he feels joy. At this time, the baby is also practicing his earliest attempts at language. "From about 3 months, they understand that if they coo, someone might respond," says Hirsh-Pasek. Want to develop sharp communication skills in your baby? Coo right back at her. This simple interaction will teach the baby about give and take, an essential skill in life.

6 Months to 1 Year: Absorbing the World Around Them

If, in the first six months, a baby is like a little IBM mainframe, cataloguing and processing vast amounts of information, then the next six months are more about studying trends in that data. At this point, babies begin to predict responses, figuring out how mom is likely to react to a big grin. It's a subtle change from the mimicking of the first six months, but requires way more understanding on the part of the baby. She recognizes patterns of language and tone (such as when "no" means "don't even think about it" and when it simply means "be careful"). She can distinguish between happy and sad rhythms in music. And she has a firm grasp on the patterns in her own life, such as meal times. "As they get older, they become better statisticians," says Hirsh-Pasek. "Children are master pattern-seekers."

Certainly, this is a key time, when babies are mastering motor skills, learning to crawl and starting to stand up. This is also a time when babies begin to explore the use of language. At about 9 months, the brain's synapses become attuned to a specific language (or languages), and babies begin to utter syllables and words. "Rhyming games, conversation, patty-cake and peek-a-boo all build on your child's interest in language," says Healy, who recommends a high degree of interaction between parent and child to develop this skill. Children are most engaged and develop the richest vocabulary when the people in their lives respond to what they say -- rather than crowd their minds with word drills. "You want the impetus to be bottom-up," says Healy. "Let it start with the child and build on their interest."

Valerie Tunks of Arlington, Virginia, is the mother of 10-month-old twins Gabe and Liv. "If I see that they're interested in the ball, I'll say, 'Oh, you want the ball?'" she says. "Then I'll say the color of the ball and the shape of the ball." For the twins, these interactions are real-world lessons in vocabulary, shape and color. Children, says Hirsh-Pasek, learn in a more meaningful way if lessons are part of their everyday experiences. It's much the same for adults: You can read entire libraries about the Grand Canyon -- but stand on its edge and gaze at it for yourself, and chances are you'll internalize the experience in infinitely more profound ways.

 The Second Year: Conversation and Imagination

In the second year of their lives, babies turn into little communicators. At about the age of 1, they can understand words spoken by others. At 18 months, many are using two or more words in short sentences. By the time they're 2, they typically can engage in rudimentary dialogue, learning how to ask and answer and take turns speaking. In short, they become chatterboxes on legs -- in a language that can generally only be comprehended by the parents.

Beyond these key language skills, however, babies are also beginning to truly comprehend the dynamics of human interaction. In other words, they're able to make sense of subtle social cues. This is when they develop a clear sense of self and are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, says Hirsh-Pasek. Most notably, they learn to read subtle social cues, such as facial expressions. "When my son was about 18 months old and he was going to do something naughty, I would say 'no,'" recalls Gopnik. "In response, he would give me the best smile he could muster. If he saw that I smiled back -- if the corners of my mouth turned up just a little -- he would take it as license to continue doing what he was doing." At 18 months, Gopnik's son understood that if mom was smiling, she couldn't be too angry.

Another dynamic process that takes place as babies approach 24 months is the development of imagination. They begin to pretend, inventing companions or holding a block up to the ear like a telephone. It may sometimes seem silly (especially if you have a toddler who has taken to barking like a dog), but it's actually a sophisticated form of smarts: the ability to imagine possibilities that don't exist -- the same skill that Shakespeare conjured when writing Hamlet. "They're exploring the ways that the world can be, not just the way the world is," says Gopnik. By pretending, a baby is learning innovation, one of the most highly regarded aspects of human intelligence.

Tools of the Trade

To nurture these skills, experts recommend open-ended toys: building blocks, ring stackers, shape sorters, balls -- even Tupperware and pots and pans. "We all know the old line: If you're going to get your kid a computer, don't give him the computer, give him the box," says Healy. "He can crawl inside a box. He can think it's a house. He can make into a tunnel or a horse." This sort of play, she says, "lays the groundwork for all sorts of higher thinking." But the most important thing is to resist the temptation to micromanage their play. (Don't invent scenarios for your child.) "Motivation is natural in the human brain," says Healy. "Present them with fascinating experiences and let them go."

This may seem counterintuitive in a results-oriented society where parents compare notes on their infants' vocabulary and the news media reports on 2-year-olds being admitted to Mensa, an organization reserved for only the world's smartest and brightest (or some such). But the recipe for raising smart babies is startlingly simple: Talk to them, cuddle them, nurture them, and provide them with a safe environment in which they can make their own discoveries. "The fact is," says Gopnik, "you are your baby's best educational toy."

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