8 Brilliant Ways Babies Are Smarter Than You Think
Chubby, cherubic, and drooly, sure. But babies are much more than lovable lumps, according to fascinating new studies that reveal true genius in those ga-gas and goo-goos.
By Lauren Gelman
Baby brains grow at an astonishing rate—they more than double in size by the time a newborn turns one year old and reach their full adult size just four years later, by kindergarten. To help with all this growth and learning, babies’ brains have about 1,000 trillion synapses (connections between brain cells) or twice that of an average adult.
No wonder all new parents and grandparents look at their baby at some point and ponder, “Just what is she thinking?” Now, there’s more proof than ever that your mini-me has a lot going on upstairs.
Babies know when a new language is being spoken.
We’ve long known that infant brains are uniquely suited to learning more than one language, and recent research helps explain how they’re able to do this. A University of British Columbia study found that babies as young as four months old can discern from visual cues when a different language is being spoken (based on the shape and rhythm of the speaker’s mouth and face movements). 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 showed that babies who live in bilingual homes have a longer length of time when their brain is flexible enough to pick up different languages, compared to infants who only hear one tongue spoken—a sign that easily becoming bilingual is somewhat “use it or lose it.”
Babies understand others’ emotions.
Even infants who’ve never or rarely interacted with Fido could match sounds of angry snarls and friendly yaps with photos of dogs displaying threatening and welcoming body language, according to a study published in Developmental Psychology. Earlier research from the same lab at Brigham Young University found that infants can also pick up on mood swings in Beethoven's music.
Very young babies grasp what words mean.
Some child development experts think infants don’t understand the link between images of objects and their names (knowing a picture of an apple is the word “apple”) until around age one, but a University of Pennsylvania study found that babies as young as six months old boast this ability, long before they can speak words themselves.
The study authors had six- to nine-month-old babies look at images of foods and body parts while their parents gave them simple related directions (“where’s the nose?”). They found that the babies looked more at the item that was named than any other image, which indicates they knew the word’s meaning. The study authors say this is more good proof to talk to your baby, even if it seems like you’re just getting blank stares.
Young toddlers can gauge fairness.
No wonder “it’s not fair” is a favorite whiny-kid rant. Babies learn what’s equal as young as 15 months old, according to University of Washington research published last year. The scientists had babies watch videos in which milk or crackers were distributed equally or unequally between two people. The babies paid more attention when the distribution was unequal, which indicates they can tell—and were surprised by—the difference.
Interestingly, 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 proper punishment.
Who knew, but children as young as eight months old like when bad things happen to bad people. University of British Columbia researchers last year presented different scenarios of puppets acting negatively or positively toward other characters. Then the babies were shown puppets either giving or taking toys from these “good” or “bad” puppets. The babies preferred the puppets that mistreated the bad puppets from the first situation compared to those who treated the bad puppets nicely.
The study authors believe this may be a precursor to social behaviors kids express later in life, like tattling on other naughty kids. And the fact that they present so early indicates this may be an innate, rather than learned, trait.
Little ones value altruism.
It may seem that young kids are all about the gimmes, but a study published earlier this year found that toddlers are happier when they give things to others. The researchers gave a group of toddlers Goldfish cracker treats 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 relinquished their own treat as opposed to the extra one.
The toddlers’ desire to give suggests that our capacity to derive joy from helping others is an innate part of human nature, according to a university press release.
Toddlers fall for peer pressure.
Want your baby to share, eat his veggies, and take a good nap? Surround him with well-behaved friends, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Cell Biology. Researchers found that two year-olds were more likely to copy a behavior if three of his peers were doing it compared to if just one was—a sign that even young kids can succumb to peer pressure.
Baby brains thrive when kids play music.
You’ve probably heard about a link between music and IQ (recent research even found a link between playing instruments in childhood and a reduced risk of dementia later in life). Now a recent Canadian study suggests that even young babies benefit from exposure to music making. One-year-old babies who took interactive music classes (learning hand motions to certain songs and “playing” percussion instruments) had better communication skills (including pointing at out-of-reach objects, waving good-bye, and showing less distress in unfamiliar surroundings) than babies who took a less-active class that involved playing at various stations with music playing in the background.