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What Your Baby Really Knows

Five years ago, when I was pregnant for the first time, the baby buzz was all about bonding. My fantasies focused on nursing my son, keeping him physically close, and taking off as much time from work as I could. But now, as I await my second child, the buzz is about building brains. Shopping for the gear that failed to survive Alec's babyhood, I'm amazed at the panoply of rattles, mirrors, mobiles, and musical tapes aimed (theoretically) at proliferating neural pathways from the moment the baby exits the womb. Though I'm a natural skeptic, part of me can't help thinking: Since Alec had none of these props as an infant, will he fall short of his potential? As for his imminent sibling, should I fill my shopping cart with all those doodads?

I began to wonder what the most current research really says about babies and learning. It turns out that the process is much more nuanced and sophisticated than even experts once thought. "All the findings to date indicate that parents are a baby's most instructive toys  -- perfectly sufficient food for wiring babies' brains and helping them begin the learning process," says Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D., coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib.

How does that learning process begin?

The First Signs of Intelligent Life
At birth, your baby is basically a bundle of senses groping toward the world around her. The most lively parts of her central nervous system are those that control such actions as breathing, sucking, and swallowing.

In the first few months, a baby's dominant, most fully evolved senses  -- touch, smell, and taste  -- are those that we grown-ups may take most for granted. In your little scientist's personal laboratory, the mouth and nose are as essential as the eyes and ears for gaining information.


Every object that enters an infant's hand  -- rattle, keychain, pebble, stray grocery receipt  -- goes express to the mouth. But these early oral encounters are not just about taste. For a newborn, the tongue and gums are vital organs for feeling out surroundings. A baby's sense of touch develops over several years from head to foot; even by age 5 the face and mouth remain more sensitive than the hands.

Smell and Taste

Closely related, these two "chemical" senses are almost fully mature at birth. In fact, by about your 28th week of pregnancy, your baby could smell almost everything you ate or inhaled.

It's believed that a newborn can recognize Mom by scent: At 10 days old, babies who are placed between breast pads from their mothers and those from other women turn toward the one bearing the odors of Mom's skin and milk.

Your baby's taste buds have been forming since eight weeks after conception. At birth, he can discern sweet, bitter, and sour flavors but not yet the taste of salt. He can even "rank" his preference for different varieties of sugar, from the sweetest on down. That's right: The craving that ultimately draws us toward the freezer department of the supermarket begins at birth  -- and for several sound reasons related to survival.

Sweet receptors in the mouth are linked with brain areas that release homegrown opiates, inducing pleasure, relieving stress, even blocking pain. "In nature," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, "sweet foods are the best sources of energy  -- and the safest to consume. And sugar definitely has a calming effect on babies."


Many people think a newborn's eyesight is blurry, but she simply has a very narrow range where focus is best: between 10 and 12 inches away, says Meltzoff. It's no coincidence that this happens to be the distance between an infant's face and that of a parent or other caregiver cradling her, whether to nurse or simply to commune.

It's well known that infants are drawn to high-contrast objects  -- those black-and-white mobiles arose from the discovery that because cones in the eyes (which process color) mature far more slowly than rods (which discern shades of gray), babies don't perceive much color until they're 2 to 4 months old. Bold stripes, checkerboards, and graphic shapes are all visually compelling to babies. But overwhelmingly, their favorite thing to look at, from birth, is a live human face (by the end of the first week, Mom's above all others).

Because an infant's central field of vision isn't much better than her peripheral vision (adults, by contrast, tend to focus on the middle of things), she may learn to identify some faces as much by their outer features  -- hairline, jaw, ears  -- as by their eyes, mouth, and nose.

Vision is the only sense that's not stimulated in utero, but it matures so dramatically from birth that acuity improves twentyfold within the first six months or so: from 20/600 to about 20/30 (20/20 is normal adult acuity). Those high-contrast mobiles and flash cards, by the way, will do nothing to improve your child's vision or IQ, say experts. A baby's normal environment provides plenty of contrast and other visual amusement.


A baby is born able to recognize Mom's voice (he'll learn Dad's and siblings' within days) as well as any songs and stories she sang or read repeatedly during her third trimester. He'll even show a preference for the rhythms and sounds of the native language that was spoken when he was in the womb.

Yet while hearing is more mature than vision at birth, it's the tortoise of the senses, still fine-tuning itself when school rolls around. What neonatal ears don't do well is identify where in space a sound is coming from or separate the different components of complex "fast" sound, such as normal adult language. Recognizing a melody is far easier for an infant than recognizing a series of words. "Say the word 'cat' and you are making three different speech utterances in one sound, as compared to a single note of music," Eliot explains.

Music can greatly enhance a newborn's environment, but there are a couple of caveats: Babies prefer melodies with regular rhythms to atonal, syncopated, or otherwise irregular music (which explains why my newborn son never did seem to appreciate Dad's tutorials in Thelonius Monk). And infants don't yet have the skill that adults demonstrate so well at cocktail parties: the ability to screen out background noise and focus on a chosen sound. "Listening just to music, dancing with your baby, and singing to soothe him are all good activities. But at other times, especially when you're interacting, keep background music and other noise to a minimum," says Eliot. One of your baby's main jobs, from day one, is to learn language through face-to-face interaction, and he can't do it if the stereo, radio, or TV is constantly on.

Vestibular System

A sixth sense is also up and running; in fact, it's more active in a newborn than it will ever be again. The vestibular system governs our sense of balance and position in space. It's what ultimately allows us to do such simple things as turn our head while keeping our eyes fixed on a single point in space, or jog without seeing the world bob up and down before us.

A baby's vestibular system is actually overresponsive, perhaps because its stimulation is crucial to developing posture and motor skills. Within days of birth an agitated infant will be soothed more readily by gentle swaying, bouncing, and jiggling than by caretaker contact alone. And there's evidence that (within reason) the more vestibular stimulation babies receive, the more quickly their physical abilities develop.

Infancy 101
Within hours of birth, according to Meltzoff's research, babies can imitate adults' facial expressions (sticking out tongues, opening mouths, pursing lips). Mimicry is a tool for learning what it means to be a person. From this early mirroring, babies progress to figuring out that they share with other people not just physical traits but also desires, goals, and intentions  -- the path toward social cooperation and empathy.

The maturity of a baby's senses suits perfectly the three subjects a person-in-training needs to study: socialization, emotions, and language. For instance, that narrow, close range of focus and the preference for faces are geared toward working on relationships, while hearing abilities are tuned to the careful, intimate speech patterns a parent instinctively uses when speaking to a baby. A keen sense of smell helps identify familiar people when their faces are too far away (or too close) for an infant to see clearly.

Here, four of a baby's first, most important life lessons  -- and how you can be an effective tutor:

People can remain the same even when they change

A familiar person can disappear from sight and return looking different yet be the same person. "If you come home with a different haircut  -- or simply come out of the shower smelling like a new soap  -- don't be surprised if you notice that your baby seems confused. She may actually be wondering who you are," says Meltzoff. The close-up, face-to-face routines you and she have established  -- as well as her recognition of your voice  -- are the guides she'll use to "relearn" your identity.

Needs that are communicated will be met

In the first six weeks of life, a baby experiences only two emotions: pleasure and discomfort, says Sharon Landesman Ramey, coauthor of Right From Birth: Building Your Child's Foundation for Life. Your most critical goals are to encourage the first and relieve the second. How is this a learning experience? "What you're teaching is that efforts bring predictable rewards," Ramey says. Your baby learns, If I drop the toy, Dad picks it up. If I cry, someone will hold and comfort me. By responding to your infant's needs and reinforcing his satisfactions, you are giving him his first essential lessons in trust. You cannot "spoil" him!

Communicating involves taking turns

You can start teaching the art of conversation by establishing a clear rhythm of "listening" and "answering," even in a game of peekaboo. Once she starts to coo and gurgle (around 3 months), make eye contact, let her finish a "statement," then respond to her.

Emotions affect people in predictable ways Between 3 and 6 months, your baby's emotional palette expands to include interest, joy, sadness, and anger. Acknowledge these emotions by mirroring them in your reactions: "Oh, I see you're happy," you might say with a smile after a tickle. Not only is your baby expressing these feelings but he's also beginning to recognize them in others.

Teach Me!
You can enhance your baby's early learning by doing a few things that (mostly) come naturally:

Let go of inhibitions

Silliness and spontaneity enrich the dance of social connection. "In those early interactions with your baby, you may make sounds and feel sensations that are completely new to you, and that intimacy with your baby is healthy," says Ramey.

As often as possible, keep your baby close

Even when you're not interacting, carrying or wearing her (rather than parking her in a baby seat) allows her to observe you at close range, stimulates her sense of physical contact, and helps satisfy her motion-hungry vestibular system.

Learn the difference between awake and alert

Though overall sleep time per day doesn't fluctuate much in the first three months, what does change is how much of the time your baby is alert  -- not just awake but ready to learn. This will gradually increase. So learn his signals for "Show me something new!" and "I want to quit."

Avoid overstimulation

Just like grown-ups, babies need some downtime, time to process and consolidate all the extraordinary sensations they're absorbing.

As for concern that you should acquire the flash cards, baby software, and other props of some learning regimen in order to do right by your child: "My intuition is that babies have so much to learn about people and ordinary objects that all these new activities may take time away from the normal social interaction we know they need," says Meltzoff.

As impressive as a baby's brain may seem, in many ways we are born knowing a lot less than other animals. "Mountain goats can get up an hour after birth and climb a mountain," says Meltzoff. "Spiders are born knowing how to weave a web."

Ironically, human babies' far greater dependency on their parents is an evolutionary coup of sorts. That openness to learning has enabled our species to live in a greater variety of social groups, eat a wider range of foods, practice more diverse customs, even occupy more ecological niches, than any other species on earth. We are born to learn, and what we are born to learn is how to be (in so many delightfully different ways) human.

Julia Glass's last article for Parenting was "Nurturing Empathy," in the June/July issue.