Sure, babies are chubby, cherubic, and drooly. But babies are more than just lovable lumps, according to intriguing new studies that reveal the genius behind those “ga-gas” and “goo-goos.” Babies are smarter than you think!
Infant brains develop at an astonishing rate—doubling in size by the time a newborn turns one year old. Their brains grow to full adult size by the time they reach kindergarten four years later. To aid this growth and learning, babies’ brains have around 1,000 trillion synapses (connections between brain cells). That’s twice that of an average adult!
It’s no wonder that new parents and grandparents look at their babies and think, “Just what is she thinking?” These days, there’s more proof than ever that your child has a lot going on upstairs.
Babies know when a different language is being spoken.
We’ve long known that babies’ brains are uniquely suited to learning more than one language. Recent research helps explain how they’re able to do this. A University study found that even four month-olds can discern from visual cues when a different language is being spoken (based on the rhythm of speech and the shape of the speaker’s mouth). According to a university press release, the “babies growing up in a bilingual environment advantageously maintain the discrimination abilities needed for separating and learning multiple languages.”
Another study revealed that babies who live in bilingual homes have a longer length of time when their brains are flexible enough to learn different languages. This window only lasts a short while though, suggesting that a baby’s propensity to pick up a new language is a bit of a “use it or lose it” situation.
Babies understand others’ emotions.
Even infants who have had few interactions with dogs were able to match sounds of angry barks and friendly yaps with photos of dogs displaying threatening or welcoming body language, according to a study published in Developmental Psychology. Previous research from the same lab at the university found that infants can pick up on mood swings and changes in Beethoven’s music.
Very young babies “understand” what words mean.
Certain child development experts believe that infants don’t understand the link between images of objects and object names (knowing a picture of an banana is the word “banana”) until around age one, but a University study found that babies as young as six months old can possess this ability, long before they are able to say these words themselves.
The authors of this study had six- to nine-month-old babies look at images of food and various body parts. Next, their parents gave them simple directions (“Where’s the ear?”). The researchers found that the babies looked more at the item that was named than any other image, indicating that they knew the word’s meaning. The study authors say this is proof that parents should talk to their babies, even if they seem unresponsive to the words they are being told.
Young toddlers can gauge fairness.
Every parent of a toddler is familiar with the phrase “that’s not fair!” What you may not know is that babies learn about “fairness” as young as 15 months. Scientists at the University studied babies watching videos in which milk or crackers were distributed either equally or unequally between two people. The babies paid more attention when the distribution was unequal, indicating they can tell—and were surprised by—the difference.
Fascinatingly, the babies who were most sensitive to the violation of fairness in the food task were also most likely to show signs of altruism (by sharing their own toy) in a subsequent study.
Babies appreciate rightfully deserved punishment.
Babies may not appear vindictive, but children as young as eight months old seem to enjoy when bad things happen to bad people. Last year, University researchers presented different scenarios of puppets acting either negatively or positively toward other characters. The babies were shown puppets either giving or taking away toys from these “good” or “bad” puppets. The babies preferred the puppets that mistreated the bad puppets in the first scenario compared to those who treated the bad puppets nicely.
The study authors think this may be a precursor to social behaviors kids express later in life, such as tattling on “naughty” kids. This indicates that this may be an innate trait rather than a learned one.
Young children value altruism.
Young kids and babies may seem selfish, but a study published earlier this year found that toddlers are actually happier when they give things to others. The researchers gave a group of toddlers Goldfish crackers and asked them to give them to a puppet. Then the toddlers were given an extra treat to give to the puppet (so they could keep one and give one away). When researchers videotaped the toddlers’ behavior and rated their happiness, they found the children were happier when they gave away their own treat as opposed to the “extra”.
Toddlers’ desire to give suggests that the capacity to derive happiness from helping others is an innate part of human nature.
Toddlers are influenced by peer pressure.
According to a 2012 study published in the journal Cell Biology, if you want your baby to share, eat his vegetables, and take good naps, you should surround him with well-behaved friends. Researchers found that two year-olds were more likely to copy behaviors when three or more of his peers were doing it, compared to just one–a sign that even young kids are susceptible to peer pressure.
Music makes babies’ brains thrive.
Most parents have heard about the link between music and IQ. New research even suggests a link between playing an instrument during childhood and a reduced risk of dementia later in life.
Recently, a Canadian study suggests that even young babies can benefit from making music. One-year-olds who took interactive music classes (learning hand motions to songs and “playing” percussion instruments) showed better communication skills (including pointing at hard-to-reach objects, waving goodbye, and showing less distress in new surroundings) than babies who took classes that only used music as background noise.
So. Babies are much smarter than they appear. Babies are thinking much more than they let on. How we interact with them while learning this information is what will help us make better parenting decisions.