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New Thinking on Infant Development

When my son Eli learned the game "So Big!" at 8 months, every part of this trick thrilled me, from the fact that he could understand what I was asking (even though he was far from speaking his first words) to the sight of his pudgy arms reaching above his head. Experts have known for a while that babies are smarter than they look, but new research is giving us more insight into how their little minds work. Here's some of the exciting news:

Emotional Growth
Old thinking: It's important to talk to your baby in the first few months.

New thinking: It's not just what you say now, but how you say it.

Every baby book will tell you that your infant learns language by listening to you. But what is essential in the first months, according to new research, is the manner in which you relate to your child. "At this early stage," says researcher Maria Legerstee, Ph.D., professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, "it's about communicating a genuine emotional response."

In a recent study of babies ages 5 weeks to 3 months, Legerstee found that a child whose mom is usually sensitive to his feelings (who laughs with him when he's happy, for example) noticed when she behaved in an insensitive way (ignoring him when he was trying to get her attention, for example). Instead of smiling, cooing, or trying to have a "conversation" with her, the baby became more reserved.

What it means for you: Tune in to your baby's emotions. If he smiles, smile back. If he cries, show sympathy. Having a predictable, responsive parent helps him learn what to expect and makes him feel more secure.

Anita Sethi, Ph.D., is a consulting research scientist at the Child and Family Policy Center at New York University. She is the mother of three children.

Complex Thoughts

Old thinking: Children don't start to have complex thoughts until the preschool years.

New thinking: High-level comprehension may begin as early as 3 months.

Remember the Sesame Street song "One of These Things (Is Not Like the Other)"? The tune teaches categorization, which involves observing specific features and then noting them in other objects. (Both the blocks and the fire engine are red, for example.) Your 3-month-old could play a version of that game. Researchers at Birkbeck University of London found that 3-month-olds were able to recognize the difference between dogs and cats. When shown a picture of a dog after viewing several cats, the babies in the study looked longer at the dog, a signal that they recognized something different about the object.

What's more, at 6 months a baby can detect differences in a counting sequence. After hearing a tone matched with an object just a few times (the baby sees two objects, hears two tones), a 6-month-old can tell when the number of tones doesn't match the number of objects.

What it means for you: No need to buy those flash cards yet (if ever)  -- your baby's brain is fertile ground as is. Even if he can't sort blocks by himself, he might enjoy watching you put all the blue blocks in one pile and the red in another. You can also count them, build with them, or arrange them from smallest to largest.

Gender Differences
Old thinking: Boys and girls are similar at birth; their differences emerge as they grow.

New thinking: Although social forces play a role, boys and girls seem to be hardwired differently.

Research has shown that  -- much like adult men and women  -- boys who are 6 to 8 months old enjoy group interactions, while girls this age prefer individual encounters. When researchers measured how long babies looked at videos of puppets, they found that girls spent more time on a single puppet, while boys directed their gaze at groups.

Studies have also shown that while newborn boys and girls make a similar amount of eye contact with adults, over the next four months girls steadily increase eye contact, but boys progress more slowly.

What it means for you: Don't be surprised if your little girl is less delighted by her first playgroup than some of the boys in the room. Consider helping her to focus on one or two babies or objects rather than introducing her to everyone at once. As for your boy, you may find that he's more stimulated by the playgroup than by single playdates at home. At the same time, remember that while gender differences can help make sense of some behaviors, it's important to respond to your baby's unique personality.

Object Permanence

Old thinking: The awareness that something exists even when it's out of sight shows up at about 8 months.

New thinking: Babies can comprehend object permanence much earlier.

Psychologists now think that the understanding of object permanence may begin as early as 3 months. When researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand examined where babies looked for a hidden toy, they found that most of the little smarties looked in the right place a few seconds after the object was hidden. The catch is that the memory lasts only about eight seconds  -- but this may be the first sign of a skill that will grow as the months pass. "Just because infants don't reach for hidden objects they seem to desire doesn't mean they have no understanding that the object is still present," explains head researcher Ted Ruffman, Ph.D.

What it means for you: Although your baby doesn't yet communicate using words and actions, he may still be aware of his surroundings and have opinions. Respect his intelligence: If you're going to take away a toy because it's time to leave for daycare, give him advance notice, then let him see what you're doing. You can say, "We have to put the doggie away now because it's time to go. But I'm going to keep it here so it's waiting for you when you come home." He may not understand the words  -- then again, he just may  -- but your actions convey to him that you're paying attention to his feelings.

Recognition
Old thinking: Young babies are only able to recognize the voices of close family members.

New thinking: At 3 months, your baby can start to match a wide range of voices with faces.

If Uncle Paul visits for a short time, your child can learn that the voice she hears in the kitchen is his. Researchers at Exeter University in England taught 3-month-olds to pair voices with faces and found that after only 90 seconds of exposure, the babies knew when the voice they heard did not match the face they'd learned to associate with it.

What it means for you: When Uncle Paul comes over for a visit, have him speak to your baby in his normal voice and then in a funny voice. Not only will your child get endless enjoyment out of the game, but you'll also reinforce her ability to recognize his voice.

Memory and Recall

Old thinking: If your baby doesn't perform a trick (like clapping), he's forgotten how to do it.

New thinking: Babies know more than they reveal.

When I tried to get Eli to show his grandmother the "So Big!" game, he balked. Researcher Carolyn Rovee-Collier, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, tells me I should not have been surprised. Little ones often won't share a new skill with someone they haven't seen recently, especially if they learned it in a different place. "Your baby would probably not show Granny the trick at Granny's house before nine to twelve months of age," she explains. By 12 months, babies are better able to figure out if a stranger is friendly or not, and they're willing to demonstrate new tricks to a stranger in a new place.

What it means for you: Don't be hurt if your daycare provider tells you that your baby has been playing along with "Open, Shut Them," while you get only blank stares when you sing the song at home. It's simply easier for him to recall new information in the same location or situation where he first learned it.

Skill Building
Old thinking: Mastering a skill takes a long time.

New thinking: It can take a really long time.

When researchers at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst observed how 9- and 12-month-olds learned to handle utensils, they found that no matter how many times and how many ways they showed the 9-month-olds how to hold a spoon, the babies continued to alternate between effective and ineffective holds. Only by 15 months did the little eaters start to get it right on a regular basis. (This will come as no surprise to anyone whose dog has learned to lurk around the high chair.)

What it means for you: Be patient. Mistakes are a normal part of your baby's learning process; try to avoid getting frustrated with all the mishaps. After all, how would you feel if your husband smirked every time you asked for help with the DVD player?

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