Experiments to Do With Your Baby

Recreate real scientific scenarios. Stimulate two minds. The little ones are fascinating.
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(AlexeyLosevich/Shutterstock)

Weeks spent looking into the eyes of a loved one cause the brain to release nurturing hormones. In putting another before you, everything becomes more satisfying. Life can have meaning anew or at last.

When that person is a baby, though, it can also be boring. Though the parental bulbs pulsate, the higher cortices of the brain begin to whither and erode, understimulated in the absence of worldly adult conversation and pursuits. Baby does not enjoy museums. Baby does not get your jokes.

It's not his fault. His intellect is like that of a sentient grapefruit. But that doesn't mean your brain needs to go undernourished. You can feed on him as he feeds on you.

In a recently released book, Experimenting With Babies: 50 Amazing science projects you can perform on your kid, author Shaun Gallagher lights the way.

Henry is one-and-a-half, and he's your child. He is a good kid, but you don't always understand one another. What is Henry thinking? Why is he looking at me like that? Drink your milk, Henry.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
(Colin Hayes / Experimenting With Babies)

Put two household objects on a table between Henry and your friend, Claire. Have Claire stare at the table directly in between the objects while she says "Look at the toma! There's the toma! Do you see the toma?"

Henry should be confused. What the hell is a toma? (Or since he is just a baby, simply, What is a toma?)

Measure how much time Henry spends staring not at the empty space, but at Claire. At Henry's age, it will be a lot. He understands ambiguity and social cues. He will follow her gaze, trying to figure out which object is a toma, and look back to Claire. She is his Google. You are his Google. Learn the look in his face; next time you see it, know that he needs more direction. Give it.

"I don’t have a formal background in science," Gallagher told me, "just a lifelong interest." He's a writer and former newspaper editor based in Wilmington, Delaware, where he lives with two sentient science projects of his own.

"When I was a kid I used to love those little Radio Shack 50-in-1 science project kits," Gallagher said. "You connect all the wires. I’ve always loved stuff like that, and now I get to do that, only on actual human subjects. That’s really how my longstanding interest led me to actually write the book."

All of the experiments in the book are based on academic research published in medical and psychology journals.

In another experiment, children began in one of two groups: One was called the quiet group and another was called the noise group. In the quiet group, the experimenter would repeat a nonsense word, over and over again. And then, after a period of time repeating this word, they would switch to a slightly different word.

"So it would be the difference between like 'bap' and 'dap,'" Gallagher explains. In the noise group, they would have nature sounds playing in the background while this was happening — the sort of "soothing" nature sounds you would get to help you fall asleep or something. Even in the case of these seemingly soothing sounds, it proved to be a distraction for the babies. And the babies in the noise group did not recognize the switch to the similar sounding word as well as the babies in the quiet group.

"So we can take away from this as parents," Gallagher said, "that babies really do need to have outside distractions reduced or eliminated in order to learn the best."

"Especially when it comes to language acquisition. So it’s kind of like an adult trying to pick up a new language, and if you have 20 conversations in the back it’s hard to concentrate on this new language you’re trying to acquire; same thing for babies. And parents can try to eliminate distractions, even seemingly soothing sounds can be distractions and we now know that can cause an issue."

I asked Gallagher if any of the 50 experiments particularly stand out in his memory as a favorite. He hesitated. "Well, here's one that's easy to re-create: Babies are shown different images of spiders, and one image all of the parts are in their proper order, in other images they’re scrambled up. It turns out that babies end up recognizing the basic structure of what a spider looks like, even in the first few months of life."

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
(Colin Hayes)

"The author of the study," he explained, "said we’re born with an innate knowledge of what a spider looks like, and it’s an evolutionary behavior that helps keep us out of danger."

More specifically, that experiment involved showing infants several images and tested their looking-times at each. They spent more time looking at the non-scrambled spiders. Those babies were only four and five months old.

"I emailed with the author of that study," Gallagher said, "and he is doing similar studies with other dangerous animals like snakes and rats to see if babies exhibit an innate fear response."

If you're not into testing fear responses, here's another good one.

Find a toy that, as Gallagher puts it, "you can activate by touching it with your forehead." That is, something that lights up or sings when touched. Then, with your hands in the air, do so, in front of Henry. Observe.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
(Colin Hayes)

Several days later, do the same thing, but with your hands on the table instead of in the air. This is meant to show Henry that you could use your hand to activate the object, but you simply choose to use your head.

In the first scenario, Henry probably won't use his head. In the second, he might.

Some scientists who have done this experiment theorize that the child sees the latter scenario as a conscious choice. Other say that a child Henry's age simply is not coordinated enough to hold his hands in the air and use his head to turn on the toy. Gallagher extrapolates these competing theories illustrate that parents will often disagree as to why their child is acting a certain way. Why is Henry eating lint off the floor? Science would tell us that there is one correct answer. Though sometimes, Gallagher writes, "It's simply not possible to know for sure."

It was about two years ago that the idea for the book came to Gallagher.

"At the time I had a one-year-old son and another baby on the way," he recalls. "I can remember pretty vividly being up at like, 3:00 in the morning one day trying to help my son go back to sleep, sitting in the rocking chair. Usually I just let my mind kind of wander and the idea for the title just kind of popped into my head and I thought, 'Oh. That would be kind of a cool title for a book.'"

"When you first hear the title you start thinking about Frankenstein’s laboratory type stuff, but from the outset I was thinking of experiments that parents could perform on their child; the same sort of experiments that childhood development researchers perform on babies. Usually when I get these thoughts passing through my head at three in the morning I discount them because by 7:00 they don’t sound so good. But this particular idea stuck with me, almost like sticking in your teeth a little bit."

"I started working on some of the experiments, and then I just cleared it with my wife and went full throttle."

"Is there a specific reason that you recommend people try these experiments?" I asked. "Connection, stimulation, advancement of science, boredom?"

"There are a bunch of reasons," he said, "and you’ve mentioned a couple of them. Bonding with your baby, the intellectual stimulation, becoming more exposed to the field of child development and all the cool stuff that’s going on with it."

(Colin Hayes)

"One thing that I did not intend this book to be—and I deliberately wrote it in such a way that that it would not be this way for parents—is to see if their children measure up. This is not a book of projects to see if your child measures up against other children, or any sort of benchmark. It’s not an intelligence test. So I specifically avoided experiments that would give people that impression."

For many of the experiments, rather than just giving an age range—children develop at different paces—instead he offers, “When your child is walking,” or, “When your child has started using two-word phrases,” without necessarily saying at what age the child would have acquired that skill.

"Are any of the these experiments particularly important in that something has come of them that sort of changed common knowledge about what parents should or shouldn’t do?" I asked. "One that led to some practical consequence in the world of parenting?"

"There are definitely a bunch of experiments in the book where its effect on childhood research has been that thing," Gallagher said. "What you’re asking is something that some research has shown something to parents that has already been shown to be a practical parenting takeaway?"

"Yeah, anything like, 'This is the reason we play peek-a-boo with kids—because of this experiment'? … Because I know peek-a-boo is a super new trend." I laughed weirdly.

"I don’t know if there is anything quite that extreme, but there are definitely practical takeaways and not always intuitive things. One of the experiments has to do with whether babies have a sort of crude sense of right and wrong, and at what age that develops."

He described the semi-famous experiment where babies witnessed a play scene wherein there was someone who was trying to accomplish a task. In one group you would have the children see someone helping that person accomplishing the take, and in another group they would watch someone hindering the person from accomplishing the task.

(Colin Hayes)

"And it turns out that the children, even at a very young age, before 24 months, tended to pick up on the fact that one of these people was the so-called good guy, and one was the so-called bad guy. Their behavior toward these puppets changed based on whether they were 'good' or 'bad.'"

Before that experiment, a predominant hypothesis was that children didn’t pick up on that sort of judgment until later, maybe four or five years old. An obvious obstacle to working with people so small is the need to refine experiments so they are simple enough for infants who don’t have the language skills to express their feelings in words, but maybe instead to have them express their feelings in the way that they interact with a toy or puppet.

"In terms of practical consequences," Gallagher said, "we now know that children pick up on right and wrong this early. And parents can use that information in the way that they are teaching their own children about right and wrong. They can explain in simple terms, this is good, this is bad, this is right, this is wrong. And we can expect children to be able to understand that."

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

 
 

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