The Competence of Babies

Research has turned from the infant's physical needs to his native abilities

"I sometimes labor," Stern comments, "under a sort of mental homunculus theory. I don't really believe—and this is a personal take that I'm still trying to write down—that there is such a thing as development at all, in the way that we've been using the word. Perhaps the major issues in life—issues of dependence/independence, of being understood or not being understood—are there from the beginning. And the only thing that grows or develops are the skills with which to play out these ubiquitous battles. You see, we've acted like the issues changed: at one point there's the oral issue, at another there's the anal issue, and there's the phallic issue, and there's the independence issue, and so on. I'm saying the issues don't change. And that requires a little bit of changing of what we're talking about when we talk about development."

Unlike Margaret Mahler and other psychoanalytic theorists, baby-watchers such as Stern have come to believe that physical gratification is only a small part of what infants need to thrive. In Stern's view, a baby whose physical needs are met but who is not "understood" by the parent is likely to have difficulty. "Basic trust that when you're hungry you're going to be fed is clearly important. But I think one of the things that's most basic and important to a baby is being understood. Certainly by the third or fourth month of life, being understood starts to be very important. I can conceive of babies doing reasonably well if feeding is just minimally handled. But they're going to have a lot more trouble if they're not understood."

What Stern means when he talks about "understanding"—and "misunderstanding"—between parents and babies can best be illustrated by two different mother-baby scenes in his book The First Relationship. The first is a brief episode in the midst of the bottle-feeding of a three-month-old:

While talking and looking at me the mother turned her head and gazed at the infant's face. He was gazing at the ceiling, but out of the corner of his eye he saw her head turn toward him and turned to gaze back at her. This had happened before, but now he broke rhythm and stopped sucking. He let go of the nipple and the suction around it broke as he eased into the faintest suggestion of a smile. The mother abruptly stopped talking and, as she watched his face begin to transform, her eyes opened a little wider and her eyebrows raised a bit. His eyes locked on to hers, and together they held motionless for an instant. The infant did not return to sucking and his mother held frozen her slight expression of anticipation. This silent and almost motionless instant continued to hang until the mother suddenly shattered it by saying "Hey!" and simultaneously opening her eyes wider, raising her eyebrows further, and throwing her head up and toward the infant. Almost simultaneously, the baby's eyes widened. His head tilted up and, as his smile broadened, the nipple fell out of his mouth. Now she said. "Well hello!...heelló...heeelloóoo!", so that her pitch rose and the "hellos" became longer and more stressed on each successive repetition. With each phrase the baby expressed more pleasure, and his body resonated almost like a balloon being pumped up, filling a little more with each breath.

A mother, reading such a passage, is likely to experience both recognition and bemusement. The chances are good that she did that sort of thing with her baby. But why break it down into such tiny component parts, when it usually comes so naturally without analysis? There is a way in which analyzing this "understanding," as Stern calls it, or "fit," as Brazelton has called it, can be more than theoretically useful, and that is in situations where, for one reason or another, a natural mutuality or overlapping between baby and parent doesn't occur. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding because a baby is premature or has an immature nervous system. An overanxious parent, or even an average one who is particularly energetic in relating to a tense baby, can find the baby unresponsive—nervous, fussy, or just turned off. Stern provides a vivid example in The First Relationship—an exchange between a three-month-old girl named Jenny and her overly intrusive mother:

Whenever a moment of mutual gaze occurred, the mother went immediately into high-gear stimulating behaviors, producing a profusion of fully displayed, high-intensity, facial and vocal infant-elicited social behavior. Jenny invariably broke gaze rapidly. Her mother never interpreted this temporary face and gaze aversion as a cue to lower her level of behavior, nor would she let Jenny self-control the level by gaining distance. Instead, she would swing her head around following Jenny's to re-establish the full-face position. Once the mother achieved this, she would reinitiate the same level of stimulation with a new arrangement of facial and vocal combinations. Jenny again turned away, pushing her face further into the pillow to try to break all visual contact.

In Jenny's case, the misunderstanding eventually corrected itself. As Jenny matured, she was able to tolerate more stimulation and she and her mother enjoyed more mutual satisfaction. But other pairs who are having difficulty have benefited from intervention. Dr. Brazelton has found that a mother who is having trouble can often be helped just by looking with him at a videotape of her interaction with her baby.

Much of what baby-watchers are finding out about infants, through observation, has been known instinctively by most parents all along. The theorists may have thought that physical sensations were all that mattered during the infant's early months, but parents have always done a lot of looking, talking, and general communicating, that wasn't tactile. The work of people such as Stern merely affirms that all that cooing, baby-talking, and bouncing was something other than foolishness—that it was, rather, an essential part of bringing up baby.

For parents, the most important unanswered—and perhaps unanswerable—question is what these early interactions have to do with the outcome. How important are they to the person the child will eventually become? Stern believes that they are crucial. In the case of Michael, for instance, he believes that the frequent struggles he has with his mother over putting things in his mouth will figure in some way in future relationships, "certainly with women," if not with everyone.

Others, most notably Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard, disagree. Kagan doesn't dispute the discoveries supporting infant competence, but he believes that children have an elasticity that allows them to reverse the effects of early deprivations and problems. From studies of infants in other cultures and in the United States, Kagan has concluded that the earliest experiences are not necessarily lasting. "Resistance to that view," he has written, "is based on loyalty to what might be called a 'tape recorder' theory of development, which assumes that from the first day of life every salient experience is recorded somewhere in the brain and is never erased." Kagan, however, suggests that the mind may be "more like a painter and her canvas than a tape recorder." He goes on, "We stumble on an artist who has completed a scene containing only a tree and a bush. When we return one year later, the painter has been working continually, the tree and bush have become part of a thick forest scene and neither form is recoverable."

At Boston University, Gerald Stechler, a psychologist, is working on a research project that challenges Kagan's painter hypothesis. Stechier insists, "No part of development can be dismissed until you know the way in which those events enter into the organization of the system." Stechler was involved in one of the earliest and most ambitious long-range studies of infants, undertaken twenty-five years ago by a Boston University research team headed by Dr. Eleanor Pavenstedt. Now he is working on a follow-up study with other researchers, under the direction of Louis W. Sander (whose research on infant movements was mentioned earlier). One group of researchers, Stechler among them, is carefully going over the voluminous notes, files, films, and tests of twenty-eight of the thirty infants in the original study. When this is completed, they will try to predict, on the basis, of their review, what sort of adults the babies became. Researchers in a second group have gotten in touch with twenty-eight of the original subjects, now in their twenties. They will interview them, without having seen the infant observations, and come up with their own assessments. "We'll learn something about how these experiences from early childhood get transformed in adulthood," says another member of the team, Virginia Demos, a psychologist. "We can see what's happening to children. But what we know so little about is how these very early experiences get transformed and become part of a life." Samuel Kaplan, a psychiatrist on the team, explains: "What we hope to do is to recognize the child in the adult."

Whether or not they succeed, the Boston University team is not likely to have the last word on the significance of the infant experience. Because infancy has always been the subject of a wide range of interpretations, the interpretations themselves have social and historical meaning. Why have researchers begun to notice the infant's many talents only in the past twenty years?

Perhaps in an earlier era, when many babies died from childhood diseases, energy was focused on maintaining physical health. And because of disease, it could prove emotionally costly to view the baby as a little person. As Philippe Ariès notes in Centuries of Childhood, "People could not allow themselves to become too attached to something that was regarded as a probable loss." An 1887 baby book by a writer who called himself "Doctor Frank" made this connection dramatically clear. In his guide to child care, entitled Health of our Children, Doctor Frank pointed out that "half the population die under the age of five years." (According to other contemporary sources, infant mortality under five years was running nearly 37 percent in Philadelphia and 53 percent in New York City. Nationwide, the Bureau of the Census reported the mortality rate of infants under a year old, at the time Dr. Frank wrote, to be 16 percent.) Only near the end of the book, after discussions of "Diphtheria" and "Infant Life Ever in Danger," did Dr. Frank see fit to consider "Holding the Baby."

He wrote, "At this point it is well to say that quite a natural fault, and one exceedingly common, is for mothers to hold their infants altogether too much. No more wholesome advice can be given mothers than this, —hold your infants in your arms just as little as possible." Babies, Doctor Frank goes on to say, should be kept in their cribs at all times between feeding, washing, dressing, and outings until they are nine or ten months old!

In our time, when only about one out of a hundred children born in the United States dies before age one, the message to parents is the reverse. And when parents are told that understanding is at least as important as feeding, that babies are exquisitely tuned to every nuance in the interaction with parents, and that these interactions have long-term consequences, then parental participation in early child-rearing begins to seem critical. Jerome Kagan points out, "The belief that early experience has a profound and lasting effect on the child, wedded to the traditional attitude that the home is the best place to rear an infant, has produced reasonable caution about the possibly harmful effects of care outside the home, especially during the early, formative years."

Historically, those who argue for more parent involvement have emphasized the infant's sensitivity. Even back in 1869, a young mother, writing in her booklet Infant Life: Its Nurture and Care, under the initials E.N.G., urged mothers to bathe infants themselves, rather than leave it to the nurse: "Who can do this so tenderly as the mother?" she wrote. "Surely the sympathy that exists between herself and the child will suggest more for the babe's comfort than any teaching could point out."

Like the nineteenth-century mother, T. Berry Brazelton couples his emphasis on infant competence with a plea for parent involvement. In one of his articles, Brazelton discusses the system of reciprocity between parents and their infant, and then goes on to caution, "I do worry about separation from parents before these patterns are well established and are familiar and understood by each member of the dyad or triad." The article concludes, "All of us who are interested in preserving the family as an optimal source of important experience for the vulnerable developing infant must see our goals clearly. We must be careful to provide environmental supports that reinforce the strength and rewards of reciprocal affective ties within the family!"

It is noteworthy that the evidence of an infant's sensitivity to his surroundings comes at a time when the rules for child-rearing—a biological father who is the breadwinner, a biological mother who is the homemaker—are being rewritten. It would be unfair to suggest, however, that the research on babies was motivated entirely by a desire to keep mothers home or even to keep the family together. The discovery of video as a tool for observing behavior, a discovery some have suggested is as important to behavioral science as the microscope was to laboratory science, certainly contributed as well. Then, too, there is a new feeling of respect abroad, in our polluted age, for what is natural and unspoiled. And what could be purer, more likely to put us in touch with natural wisdom, than the newborn baby?

In one way, at least, the latest theories make life easier for parents. They may think twice about leaving their baby in day care, but, at least when they're with the child, they don't have to feel the heavy burden of total responsibility: "I started out in the fifties," notes Brazelton, "when we were blaming parents for everything that happened to babies. And that was a counterproductive stance. Parents are not responsible for everything that happens to babies, because the baby is already having a pretty strong effect on his own future."

And since babies are so competent, mystified parents don't have to keep referring to the book all the time, the way they did back in the sixties. "The question parents ask me most frequently," Brazelton says, "is 'How do I know I'm doing the right thing?' I tell them, 'Watch the baby, he'll tell you.'" The baby has replaced the books as the ultimate authority.

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