By Gail Rosenblum
What do babies know, and what are they capable of learning? These
questions have always fascinated parents, and now there are some
important new answers. Scientists are discovering that
newborns - once thought to enter the world as blank slates onto
which a lifetime of experiences was inscribed - have brains as
sophisticated as the most powerful supercomputer, wired with a
mind-boggling capacity for knowledge. Research has also shown that
in the earliest months of life, a dazzling amount of brain
development continues to occur.
"What's novel in the 1990s is an intriguing set of theories
that hadn't even been thought of as recently as fifteen years
ago," says Sandra Ackerman, the author of Discovering the
Brain (National Academy Press). One of the areas scientists are
exploring is infants' startling capacity for memory. But perhaps the
most significant news concerns the impact of a baby's environment on
the development of his brain.
Also, don't miss Mental Milestones at the end of
this article for an age-by-age guide to the intellectual development
The Basics of Brainpower
It all starts with a series of bulges on a four-week-old
embryo's neural tube. From there, billions of brain cells, called
neurons, develop throughout the pregnancy. Connections between these
cells, called synapses, also multiply rapidly during the nine months
of gestation, forming the physical maps that allow learning to
At birth, infants can feel, hear, and see (although vision is
somewhat blurred). Within days they are able to recognize their
mother's smell, and within weeks they can discriminate between her
voice and the voices of others. Synapse formation continues at a
rapid rate, allowing the baby to accomplish ever more complex tasks,
such as forming her first sounds.
If you carefully observe your baby, you will probably notice that by
about three or four months, she has a memory. If you show her a ball
or toy, for example, then place it behind your back, you'll see that
her eyes follow your action. She seems to remember the object and
know where it is.
These kinds of observations by parents are borne out by research.
"From following babies' eye movements we can observe that a
three- or four-month-old does know that an object placed behind a
screen or under a cloth is still there," confirms Adele
Diamond, Ph.D., a developmental neuropsychologist and visiting
faculty member at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The
child simply doesn't have the ability to let us know, by reaching
for, pointing to, or uncovering the object, that she knows."
A baby's capacity for memory expands rapidly. "We've found that
by the time a child is about thirteen months old, she can remember
certain events for at least eight months after they occur,"
notes Patricia Bauer, Ph.D., associate professor of developmental
psychology at the Institute of Child Development at the University
of Minnesota at Minneapolis. "Some current data suggests that
they remember even up to a year later."
At the Institute of Child Development, babies (13, 16, and 20 months
of age) were shown how to perform certain activities, such as making
a party hat decorated with a pom-pom, a headband, and a sticker.
Then the infant was encouraged to repeat the activity. The fact that
most of the children could recreate the party hat wasn't especially
miraculous; after all, we know that babies are able to imitate
spontaneously. (This is part of the learning process.) What was
remarkable, however, was that when the children returned to the
institute one year later, they could still recreate the hat.
A Baby's World
Social scientists have long suspected that children's
intelligence and well-being are affected by their
environment-whether or not they are nourished adequately,
challenged intellectually, and given enough affection. Now, modern
brain-imaging techniques have confirmed this notion. "We
recognize that the actual physical wiring of the brain is
susceptible to experience," says William Greenough, Ph.D.,
professor of psychology and cell and structural biology at the
Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Dr. Greenough obtained similar results from his experiments on rats.
"We found that the brains of rats placed in stimulating
surroundings were more elaborate than those of rats placed in
isolation. The animals in the first group had more brain-cell
connections, and they solved problems (such as finding their way
through a maze) more rapidly," he explains. "It was clear
that a stimulating environment brought out the best in them."
The same goes for babies. Specifically, a baby's environment during
the first year of life appears to have an enormous impact on brain
development. It is during the first few months that the brain's
wiring is fine-tuned, and excess cells and synapses-typically
those that have never been used - are eliminated, explains Kathryn
Taaffe Young, Ph.D., a New York City-based developmental
psychologist. Dr. Young is the principal author of Starting
Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children, a 1994
Carnegie Corporation study that underscored the importance of
maximizing children's potential for learning before age three.
"The first year is critical for healthy brain
development," she emphasizes. "If synapses aren't used,
they die, and there's no chance to revive them."
What this means is that children reared in environments where
stimulation is limited actually have fewer synapses than those
raised in environments where they are regularly talked to, held, and
visually stimulated, according to Dr. Young. You may not have
realized it, but all of the things that you do with your baby
regularly add up: When you sing to an infant, talk to her, hold her,
play with her, and give her appropriate toys and objects to explore,
you are creating an environment that enables her brain to develop to
its maximum potential.
Practical Implications for Parents
When parents hear about the importance of stimulation, they may
wonder whether they should be making special efforts to encourage
their baby's intellectual growth. In other words, will more
stimulation result in an even smarter baby?
Most experts believe that it doesn't help to pressure babies and
young children to learn. In fact, says Dr. Diamond, pressure can
turn learning into a source of anxiety. Patricia Goldman-Rakic,
Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Yale University School of
Medicine, adds, "Young minds can absorb information
efficiently, but the child must be ready for it." Parents must
be careful not to frustrate a child by pushing him to perform tasks
that are beyond his level. "And don't be concerned about how
well a young child performs a task," Dr. Goldman-Rakic adds.
"There's no question that he will master it over time."
The key is to support a baby's natural development through
challenging, age-appropriate activities. Experts suggest that in
your child's first year of life, you introduce her to objects of
different weights, textures, and materials, for example, and show
her colors both indoors and outdoors. Because babies tune in quickly
to sounds and rhythms, read poetry to your baby and have her listen
to all kinds of music. Give her a pan and a spoon and let her make
her own music. Because babies do so much learning by imitation, play
imitation games with your baby (like wiggling your fingers or making
sounds and encouraging her to watch and do what you're doing).
The most important strategy for encouraging early learning is
simple. "Nurture your child's unlimited curiosity about the
world around her," Dr. Diamond suggests, "and a sense that
learning is fun." Remember that education is a process and that
your role as your child's most involved teacher is a lifelong one.
Children learn by example; if a child sees you having a wonderful
time using your mind, she will be sure to get excited about all
kinds of learning, too.
The following is an age-by-age guide to the intellectual
development of babies, according to Jill Swanson, M.D., a
pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Newborn to Three Months
outside stimuli with an "on-off" system that allows
her to be alert one minute, and to tune out the next
distinguish mother by her scent; by second month, discriminates
among different voices, tastes, and sizes of objects
objects that disappear and reappear quickly
in imitation games
repeating one syllable over and over; able to utter several
to understand that something out of sight may be concealed
behind something else
his name and the meaning of many words associated with familiar
people or objects
Twelve to Eighteen Months
the meaning of some words and commands
to recognize some words as symbols for objects
increased attention span; may play with one toy for as long as
activities such as using a comb, listening to a toy phone, or
wiping up a spill
for hidden objects
five to ten words
past events for longer periods