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How Babies Learn: Inside The Mind Of A Baby


In the recent spate of news reports about a baby's developing brain, much has been made of the idea that there are "critical periods" of cognitive development. Reading that, you might be inclined to believe that if you didn't try to provide intellectual stimulation at all times  -- as if such a thing were possible  -- you'd miss your window of opportunity and your baby would suffer irreparable setbacks.

"Without a doubt, the first few years of life are critical for some aspects of brain development," says Nelson. Visual development, for instance, usually occurs during the "critical period" between the second and fourth months. Likewise, if a newborn learns that no one comes when he cries, his emotional development may be stifled.

Nelson prefers the term "sensitive" in place of "critical" periods, and stresses that even if a baby misses out on an important cognitive step, the outcome will depend on his individual constitution. While some kids are unable to compensate for early deficits, he says, "there are children who develop well despite adversity."

Of course, we want no adversity for our children, no window of opportunity slammed shut. So we play nursery games, read simple books, make funny faces. The neurologist might say that with each round of peekaboo, a particular neural connection is reinforced. The cognitive-development theorist might counter that during the appropriate developmental stage, a baby moves to the next logical step. Both would agree that the net effect of peekaboo is the same: A baby comes to understand that among the known properties of his physical universe, his parents considered him worthy of their time, love, and attention.

Despite the complexities of the developing brain, despite all that science has yet to discover, there is one great secret a baby will reveal. Day by day, he'll let his parents know who he is, and offer clues, imperceptible at first, as to what is going on in that little mind. It's a mystery that is quickly revealed, for by the time he is a toddler, few of his thoughts are likely to go unexpressed.

Why You Should Talk to Your Baby

Linda Henry, the mother of two, is the editor of The Talking Stick, a literary journal.