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Are Babies Afraid of Plants?


My daughter always screamed when she was set down on the lawn as a baby. I thought it was the scratchy feel of the grass. But new research from Annie Wertz and Karen Wynn of The Infant Cognition Center at Yale University states that their instincts make babies afraid of plants, an aversion that may protect them from dangerous toxins or thorns.

If we go back several thousand years to when the main substances surrounding people were dirt and plants rather than flooring and drywall, the researchers hypothesize that with such proximity to potentially hazardous vegetation, babies needed an inborn wariness to keep them from putting deadly foliage in their mouths (along with the dirt, which you know they ate back then, too). They conclude that evolution supplied the necessary caution. The babies who survived and had babies of their own were the ones who waited to see which greenery the big people ate.

Wertz and Wynn set out to show that infants avoid plants using a simple experiment: 47 babies, 8 to 18 months old, were seated on their parents' laps in a room with no stimuli present and only a bare table. The researchers placed within reach on the table a real plant, an artificial plant or an object that looked nothing like a plant. Forty-five of the babies took longer to touch the real and fake plants than the other objects. On average, it took the babies 5 seconds longer to touch the plants.

Why are babies afraid of plants?

"One possible reason for this delay is that it gives parents extra time to intervene. So, in a sense, the protective behavioral strategy may be built around having vigilant caregivers present," Wertz says. So even though babies are reluctant to touch plants, "without parental supervision infants may very well end up going for them."

Wertz stresses, "Our findings do not mean that it is safe to leave your infants alone with plants." They're not that afraid of them.

But more importantly, how do you get your baby to look cute for a picture on the lawn when he hates grass?

Wertz said, "It's important to note that these findings are about infants' responses to plants before they have any social information about them.... We fully expect that when infants get sufficient social information that a particular plant is safe, [they] will abandon their initial reluctance."

In other words, roll around on the lawn and look like you're having fun while your baby sits safely on a blanket. Eventually, he might join you.


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