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How Babies Learn: Inside The Mind Of A Baby


After just a few months, babies are ready for diversions. Though the level may be primitive, the "awakening" usually strikes parents as nothing short of miraculous. Mackenzie Ekren, of St. Louis, is only 6 months old, yet she has learned the give-and-take of conversation. "Her tone varies," says her mother, Amy. "It isn't a monotone like I thought it would be." Often, Mackenzie will pause to wait for a response. If there is none, she arches her eyebrows, which her mother takes to mean, "C'mon. Say something!" Sometimes her mother holds up her end of the conversation, other times she imitates her daughter's babbling, which Mackenzie interprets as a fun competition  -- she mimics her mother right back and tries to outtalk her.

Such interactions indicate huge strides in cognitive development. "A baby is beginning to crack into the huge world of encoded communication that flies around  -- what we call language," says Leslie. As the baby's babbling becomes more distinct (between 8 to 10 months), parents begin to wonder if she is actually forming words: "mama," "dada," or even complex phrases.

By babbling, a baby practices forming the varied sounds of her native language, with parents often trying to help their child along. When Margie Gitten, of Holmdel, NJ, points to the polka dots on the nursery wall, she names each color for her daughter Emily, who is 7 months old. Although Emily cocks her head and looks as if she's registering the information, her mother isn't sure what, if anything, Emily is learning. But Emily can't help but gain knowledge  -- if not of colors, then certainly of the fact that she's worthy of her mother's doting attention.

By 8 months, babies are beginning to retain words in their long-term memory. In a recent study, researchers had infants that age listen to stories, then two weeks later read back lists of words to them. Measuring the amount of time each baby stared at a flashing light, they found that the babies listened to words taken from the story significantly longer than they listened to unfamiliar ones. As far as scientists can tell, 8-month-olds don't attach much meaning to words, although sound retention continues to be an important way for babies to learn language.

As an infant's physical relationship to the world moves from lying down to sitting, crawling, and finally, walking, it's difficult to separate cognitive development from motor development. Now a baby has the freedom to change his point of view and perspective. "This has an enormous impact in terms of how much useful information the infant can obtain," says Leslie, who compares this advantage to adding a zoom lens to your camera. "If the baby wants to zoom in on something, now he can stand up and walk toward it. He can even pick it up and put it in his mouth for good measure. Being able to move around allows the baby to bring that fantastic brain into contact with more and more of the world."