A recent lawsuit filed against JP Morgan claims that fathers have a right to paternity leave that would extend well beyond the current norms. How could additional dad-and-baby time affect the development of a newborn’s brain?
At first, parents might consider their crying newborn to only be expressing a limited range of emotions, with the typical cry communicating that the newborn needs something from the caregiver. However, just like the rest of us, babies are constantly taking in information and processing it in dynamic ways.
The Infant’s World
“Babies seem to know something about the physics of gravity,” said Dr. Peter M. Vishton, Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. “If a baby sees an object resting on a supporting surface—say, a shelf—and then the object is pushed off the edge of the shelf, if that object simply hangs in midair without falling down, 5-month-old infants look longer relative to baseline preferences.” In other words, they know the object should fall to the ground, and they expect it to, which is indicated by how they seem to wait for an object to fall if it doesn’t. They don’t know Newton’s Laws, but they have a loose understanding of the concept.
Dr. Vishton offered other similar examples as well. He said if infants are shown pictures of a male face and a female face, and they hear a female voice speaking, they’re more likely to look at the female face longer. This suggests that they understand the pairing of objects with specific sounds.
Perhaps most astonishingly was a study he cited about infants and the transference of inertia. As a constant in this experiment, infants would watch a ball roll across a stage and collide with a second ball, causing the second ball to move, which resulted in the infants watching for a normal amount of time. “If the first ball stops short of the second ball, but the second ball is launched anyway, infants look significantly longer,” he said. “If the first ball stops, and then, after a short delay, the second ball is launched, infants look longer at that, too. Infants seem to know something about inertia and causation.”
Food for Thought
“It is important to provide infants with a rich perceptual and social world right from the beginning,” Dr. Vishton said. “It might seem silly to walk a baby around to show her things, to talk with her about the weather and the strange things that people do at the dinner table. The baby might not seem to react in a very adult-like fashion, but the baby brain is processing things at a much higher level than most people think.”
At the same time, Dr. Vishton advises against going overboard. While stimulating babies is vital and healthy, it shouldn’t become the only focus of any parent’s day. “Don’t ignore the baby; have fun with him or her,” he said. “But don’t feel the need to go through stress and anxiety about a critical period of development that might be missed if the child isn’t fed with high-tech toys and expensive high-contrast crib systems. There is no evidence that any specific toy or activity will affect brain development in any critical way.”
Ultimately, small babies know much more than we think. Even though they can’t properly express their understanding, they have expectations of various sights and sounds and how objects interact. So long as it’s not overdone, providing sensory experiences for babies can help them flourish.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton contributed to this article. Dr. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.