Things You Probably Didn’t Know Babies Can Do Before They Reach Their First Birthday

Adapted from an article by Dr. Gabrielle Principe
Chair of the Department of Psychology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina

If you watch how your baby spends her days, you might think that s/he doesn’t have the cognitive, social or emotional wherewithal to understand much about the world around them or the people in it.

But researchers from the College of Charleston in South Carolina have learned from testing babies that we should rethink that premise, and understand that babies are typically focused on figuring out exactly how the world around them works. Infants routinely analyze the objects and people around them, make predictions, and design experiments to test their hypothothese. When the data doesn’t make sense to them the baby might be expected to revise their ideas and preconceptions, and to engage in further study.

The more those scientists explore how babies interact with the world and work to learn about it, the more sophisticated they realize infants are. You’ll be surprised and more aware of how early a baby’s developmental skills begin to develop.

1. Babies Remember Very Early Experiences

In one experiment, expecting mothers were asked to read The Cat in the Hat out loud to their babies twice a day during their last six weeks of their pregnancy. Shortly after birth, their newborns were tested and showed a preference for this book over other children’s stories. (Their preference was measured by how strongly they sucked on pacifiers while a story was read to them.) Equally remarkable is that these babies preferred The Cat in the Hat to other stories regardless if it was their mother or a different baby’s mother who had recited the book.

2. Babies Know Right From Wrong

By six months of age, babies can make judgments about right and wrong behavior, and will typically favor “good” over “bad” — just like most adults. To demonstrate this, researchers had infants watch a puppet push a ball up a hill. Then a second puppet either helped or hindered the effort. Later, when given a choice, babies played more with the helper puppet — and some even pushed away the unhelpful puppet. Even infants as young as three months — who were not yet old enough to play with puppets like the older babies — spent more time looking at the helpful puppet, showing that they appreciate good over bad behavior just 12 weeks after birth.

3. Babies Want To Be Helpful

When researchers put one-year-olds in situations where a stranger was either struggling to open a closet door with full hands or trying to pick up an object beyond their reach, most babies spontaneously stopped what they were doing and tried to help. The infants would pick up the object for the stranger or even try to help the person open the door! But keep in mind there’s also research that shows that rewarding infants for engaging in helping behavior hinders rather than promotes future helpfulness. When older babies are given a material reward or verbal praise for helping, they may become less likely to help others in the future. So think twice before your reward or praise your little helper!

4. Babies Understand Statistics

In one experiment, ten-month-olds were shown two clear jars. The first jar held a 3:1 ratio of pink to black toys (12 pink and four black). The other had a 1:3 ratio of toys (12 pink and 36 black). A researcher took one toy out of each jar, holding it so the babies couldn’t see the color, and put it in an opaque cup. Babies who had already shown a preference for the pink toys reached for the cup containing the toy from the first jar because this cup had the higher probability of having a pink toy. Turns out those babies are quite clever and statistically savvy!

5. Babies Learn From Surprises

Surprises get babies to watch closely and to even attempt to figure out the unknown. This tendency was demonstrated nicely in a study where 11-month-olds were shown balls behaving in predictable as well as surprising ways. For example, babies watched a ball roll down a ramp. Sometimes it was stopped by a wall. But other times it seemed to pass right through it. Later, the infants were more interested in exploring the “magic” ball when it had defied their expectations. What’s the takeaway? If you want to encourage your baby’s curiosity, remember that surprises aren’t just for parties.

6. Babies Know If You’re Not Paying Attention

When mothers become emotionally unresponsive to them, infants typically try to re-engage them with coos and smiles. But when mothers don’t respond as they normally would, the infant will then sob, shriek and thrust to try to get their mother’s attention. This back-and-forth between mother and baby reveals just how remarkably complex the emotional intelligence of infants is and the extreme powers of everyday mother-infant interaction.

7. Babies Are Pretty Good Judges Of Character

You may know that babies are expert imitators. But what you may not know is that infants don’t imitate just anyone. Beginning around the time of their first birthday, infants automatically recognize and track the credibility of others and will no longer mimic those they deem untrustworthy. This was demonstrated when infants were paired with adults who peeked into a box, expressed excitement, and then invited their infant partners to copy the behavior. The thing is, the box contained a toy for some infants, but for others it was empty and therefore disappointing. When the same adults then tried to get the babies to copy them in another exercise, the babies were much more likely to only imitate the “trustworthy” adults.

8. Babies Know Something About Physics

There are developmental psychologists who spend their days inventing and performing magic tricks for babies. They make solid objects hover in midair, appear to go through walls and disappear only to reappear somewhere else. Remarkably, just like adults, babies tend to linger on the physics-defying scenes. They look at them longer than scenes that are exactly the same but don’t appear to violate the physical laws of nature. From this, researchers learned that infants realize that objects are subject to the force of gravity, that objects cannot move through a space occupied by other objects and that objects continue to exist even when they are hidden.

A baby’s cognitive development in just the first year of his/her life is extraordinary. As an early childhood care provider in Paramus, Hoboken, Edgewater and East Rutherford, New Jersey and in Farmingdale and Middletown New York, Prime Time Early Learning Centers is proud of its 32 year history of helping enrich the lives of families by providing flexible full and part time child care, after-school care and summer camp.