The Competence of Babies

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

The most difficult part of caring for a newborn baby, as parents discover when they bring one home from the hospital, is not the feeding or the diapering or even the waking in the night; it is living with the unknown. What must the baby be thinking as he lies awake, sucking on his hand and staring at the crib posts, when he cries and isn't hungry?

Faced with the baby's mysteriousness, parents seem to want the certainty experts proffer. Even in another age, when young parents were surrounded by an extended family of mothers, aunts, younger siblings, and cousins, they did not rely entirely on the experience of loved ones. Eager to do the modern and correct thing, they also turned for guidance to books. Benjamin Spock, whose Baby and Child Care has been the best-selling book of this century, is jut one in a long line of advice-wielding baby-doctors. In 1872, there was Combe's The Mother's Guide for the Care of Her Children; or the Management of Infancy; in 1881, Hartmann's Modern Baby; or the Art of Nursing and Raising Children. Around the turn of the century, Drs. L. Emmett Holt and J. P. C. Griffith each came out with a manual. Holt's The Care and Feeding of Children; a Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children's Nurses went through at last a dozen printings, and successive editions of Grifith's The Care of the Baby were published over a period of twenty-five years.

The one thing all baby books have in common is a tone of absolute confidence. And yet the certainties differ from one era to the next. In the 1890s, an expert advocated a start on toilet-traininig at three months. In the 1940s, parents were cautioned not to begin before the second year. In the 1850s, an expert deplored bottle feeding. In the 1930s, scheduled feedings and bottles were in. By the 1960s, flexibility and the breast were coming back into favor.

On the subject of the interior life of the infant—what the infant himself or herself experiences—the differences of opinion are monumental. In 1895, Dr. Griffith, a clinical professor of diseases of children, at the University of Pennsylvania, insisted in his book that the infant experiences next to nothing. "When the baby is just born," he wrote, "... it is ...very little more intelligent than a vegetable. Its soul and its intellect are there, but they are dormant, waiting to be awakened. It has also little control over its body, and all its movements are automatic or instinctive. Probably there is not a single expression of the face or motion of the arms or legs which is caused by a distinctly willed action.... A new-born baby probably cannot see except to distinguish light from darkness and will not wink when the finger is brought close to its eyes. It seems also unable to hear, and at first cannot smell, although taste is well developed. It is, in fact, not directly conscious of anything." Protesting, perhaps, against parents' tendency to read intelligence into their little darlings' behavior, Griffith wrote: "When it nurses at the breast it does not know it is nursing, and when it cries it is ignorant of any sensation that makes it cry."

By the time Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care first came out, in 1946, the infant was getting a little more credit. But he was still, in his early months at least, believed to be entirely absorbed in experiencing physical sensations, ignorant of the boundaries between himself and those who cared for him. Back in the fifties, when parents consulted Spock's book to find out about crying, they were advised to look for physical reasons for the baby's discontent: he might be hungry; he might be colicky; he might have an open safety pin: sticking into him. Or he might be fussing because he had an immature nervous system. But Spock went on to say that a crying baby was not fussing because of an emotion. "The baby is not mad at you," Spock told parents. "He doesn't know yet that you are a person or that he is a person. He's just a bundle of organs and nerves during his first month. Some kind of pain is spreading through his system, and it automatically sets all his limbs to thrashing."

In the past twenty years, and dramatically in the past ten, the "can't-do" baby that Spock described has been eclipsed by a "can-do" baby—a baby so attuned and responsive to his environment that, even in the uterus, he is reacting to voices, to light, and, perhaps, to his mother's moods. This "new" baby is activated not only by internal pain and appetite but by language and smiles and particular people. The operative word, in descriptions of this baby, is "competence."

"There's been a whole burst of knowledge about infant competence in the past twenty years," T. Berry Brazelton, a pediatrician, says, "demonstrating how much more the infant was paying attention to auditory; to visual, to tactile stimuli than we ever knew before." Dr. Brazelton is the author of Infants and Mothers and On Becoming a Family, which have replaced Baby and Child Care as the most popular sources of information about babies. He has also spent the close to twenty years developing the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale, a measure of twenty-six behavioral and twenty reflex activities of the newborn, or the "neonate," as pediatricians say. In hospitals around the country, where it is used to assess newborns, the scale is known as "the Brazelton."

I visited Brazelton not long ago in his office at Children's Hospital Medical Center, in Boston, where he is chief of the child development unit. He is a tall, somewhat stooped man, and his half-moon glasses, perched low on his slightly dented nose, make him look professorial but kindly. He speaks with the ease of one who has stated his case many times before—to reporters, TV audiences, and parents. In one hand, he often fingers a small red-flannel bag, with the initials TBB stitched on the side—the talisman of his belief in infant competence. Inside the drawstring bag are the instruments of his science: a red plastic spice box, hinged on one side with a circular bandaid and partially filled with popcorn kernels; a small bell; a flashlight; an orange rubber ball one inch in diameter; a paper clip. He uses these to demonstrate just how competent he believes newborn infants to be.

Brazelton led the way over to Brigham and Women's Hospital and on to the maternity ward, where he asked the nurse at the desk if she could find him a baby. The nurse understood the request—"You want to do the Brazelton, right?"—and went off in the direction of the nursery to look for a subject. A few minutes later, a mother's permission had been granted and Brazelton cheerfully wheeled a small plastic bassinet out of the nursery. The subject, exactly one day old, was a boy named Adam. Brazelton, however, called the baby "she" at first; it was competence, not gender, that preoccupied him. He steered Adam's bassinet into a washroom barely large enough for us, closed the door, and turned out the light. We were together in a womblike twilight.

Adam was sound asleep on his stomach, his head turned to one side, a blue-flannel blanket tightly tucked around him. "It's good that he's sleeping," Brazelton said softly, "because it means we can try out more things." He reached into his red-flannel bag, pulled out the flashlight, and shone the beam onto the baby's blanket, well below his head. Then he directed it slowly upward, past the edge of the blanket and onto Adam's face. The first time, Adam grimaced in his sleep when the beam hit his face. The second time, his face barely twitched. The third time, nothing happened at all.

Brazelton slowly pulled the flannel blanket down to expose the tiny body in diapers and long-sleeved undershirt. Then he rattled the plastic box full of popcorn kernels in Adam's ear. This time, Adam's reaction was more dramatic: at the rude noise so near his ear, his tiny legs drew up in seeming annoyance and his face contorted in the beginning of a cry. Brazelton paused. Then he shook the box again. This time Adam jerked fleetingly. A pause and then a third rattle: Adam slept on, oblivious. Brazelton did a similar test with a paper clip: three times he poked Adam's tiny red foot—each time with a diminished response.

Brazelton was using the flashlight, the rattle, and the paper clip to demonstrate an ability possessed by normal newborns at the moment of birth to screen out intrusions into their peace and quiet. This "shutting-down" mechanism, as Brazelton proceeded to show, is just one of many abilities Adam and other newborns possess.

Lifted out of the bassinet and roused, Adam gazed interestedly into Brazelton's eyes and turned his head to follow them. With Brazelton cheering him on ("You can do it! You can do it!"), he followed the small orange ball in a semicircular arc as well. He was as good at finding sounds as at following with his eyes. When one of us spoke near his ear but out of his line of vision, he turned toward the voice. And his final aural feat was the most remarkable of all. Brazelton had told me about a surefire game he sometimes plays with newborns. If you place a baby within earshot but out of the line of vision of a man and a woman and have them talk simultaneously, the baby invariably turns toward the female voice. (The best guess as to why babies prefer the female voice is that it is more familiar than the male: they have already lived very near it for nine months in utero. In any event, this particular preference is one that, according to Brazelton, is demonstrated even by premature infants, many of whom are incapable of the other responses Adam made.) We tried the test on Adam. Sure enough, when he was held up to our eye level and heard, simultaneously; a female voice on one side and Brazelton's on the other, he turned toward the female.

By this time, our subject was clearly too hungry and restless to continue: he was alternating between fussy crying and sucking on Brazelton's finger. Brazelton wheeled Adam into his mother's room for his lunch. "I'm just sorry we got such a cranky baby," Brazelton remarked as we left the maternity ward. "They can be so much fun." Nevertheless, Adam's brief performance had succeeded in calling into question whole books of prior gospel about neonates. Certainly it gave the lie to Griffith's version of the newborn as vegetable—not conscious of anything in the outside world. And when Adam responded to the female voice rather than the male one, he demonstrated an ability even more surprising: the ability to discriminate. In fact, the discovery of the infant's capacity for choice is transforming the expert view of infancy.

The idea that infants can discriminate was first tested by a psychologist at Western Reserve University, Robert Fantz, more than twenty years ago, in 1958. Fantz, whose work until then had been with baby chimpanzees, asked what would seem to be a simple and obvious question: Do human babies like looking at one thing better than another? Other experimenters, before Fantz, had studied how babies respond to stimuli: light in their eyes, for instance, or a bang in the ear. But until Fantz, no one had suspected that babies could possess, let alone demonstrate, a preference. To answer his question, Fantz placed each of twenty-two infants in a sort of hammock, then slid the hammock into a box he called a "stimulus chamber." In two openings a foot above the infant's head, he placed two "targets"—cardboard squares for the baby to look at. The baby could choose between the two: various pairings of a bull's-eye, a stripe, a checkerboard pattern, and several plain geometric shapes. An experimenter, watching through a peephole in the chamber ceiling, would see the tiny image of the target reflected in the infant's pupils and activate a timer to record the length of each fixation.

It turned out that babies did have clear biases. They consistently gazed longer at a patterned target than at a plain one, and did so at one week as well as at six months. And their preferences changed, even within the first six months of life. During the first two months, infants preferred, by a wide margin, to look at the striped pattern rather than the bull's-eye. After two months, they switched, with similar enthusiasm, to a preference for the bull's-eye over the stripe.

Many variations on Fantz's experiment followed. The more researchers expected from babies, the more they seemed to get. In 1970, Genevieve Carpenter discovered that infants not only prefer certain patterns over others but are capable, at one month, of distinguishing between their mother's face and others. Another experiment has demonstrated that babies express themselves not only with their eyes but also with the rest of their bodies. In the early 1970s, two pediatricians at Boston University, William S. Condon and Louis W Sander, filmed adults talking to eleven newborn babies, then used the elaborate techniques of "kinesics" to find out whether there was any correspondence between an adult's words and a newborn's body movements. By slowing down the film, they were able to show that the babies' bodies were actually moving in synchrony with the words. This experiment was later reproduced in a film, The Amazing Newborn. When the film is slowed down, the undulations of a baby's body, in synchrony with the words "I love you," are unmistakable.

As a result of research in the past decade, timetables for various abilities have been moved way back. Jean Piaget, in his study of cognitive development, placed the ability to imitate facial gestures at about eight to twelve months. But two psychologists at the University of Washington now claim to have discovered, after making faces systematically at eighteen infants, that babies can copy facial expressions at twelve to twenty-one days.

Taken together, all these findings seem to suggest that babies enter the world with certain preferences and inclinations. The notion of the baby as a tabula rasa, in John Locke's phrase, or, as Henry James put it, a "blooming buzzing confusion, a blank slate to be written on by his world," no longer fits.

The implications of these discoveries were particularly intriguing in the psychological realm. Once it was clear that infants give off readable cues, it seemed possible that one could learn, by watching them carefully, something about the great unknown: the nature of infant experience. Furthermore, if the infant is, in fact, so "tuned in" to his environment, then it seemed likely that the way the baby and his family get along during the first two years of life might shape personality in ways that earlier theorists hadn't believed possible.

The theory of infant experience that prevailed in the sixties, when these new discoveries began to be made, was based on Freudian principles. Freud described the first two years of life as an oral phase, dominated by bodily experiences of hunger, nursing, satiation, and elimination. Freud, of course, had almost no experience treating children, so his ideas were based entirely on the memories of adult patients. But later psychoanalysts who did treat children provided a more detailed picture of infancy. Probably the most influential among this group is Margaret Mahler. Mahler has focused, in her work and writing, on how the child achieves (or fails to achieve) separation from his parents and individuation. She maintains, in her book On Human Symbiosis and the Vicissitudes of Individuation, that the early months are spent in a state of "normal symbiosis, in which the infant behaves and functions as though he and his mother were an omnipotent system—a dual unity within one common boundary." It is a state, she maintains, in which the infant is "fused" with the mother, "in which the 'I' is not yet differentiated from the 'not-I', and in which the inside and outside are only gradually coming to be sensed as different." When Spock tells parents that the baby "doesn't know yet that you are a person or that he is a person," he is passing on, in simpler language, the ideas of Margaret Mahler.

But the direct observation of babies, by Fantz and others, seems to suggest a baby who is something of a separate person—possessed of some clear likes and dislikes of his own. And, as a result, observers of normal infants are engaged in a debate with Mahler about the nature of infant experience. In particular, they question Mahler's method of learning about infancy. In large part, her conclusions are retrospective, based on her work with somewhat older children. Furthermore, many of the children she has observed are disturbed, and therefore may not be the best sources of information about normal infancy. "Margaret Mahler," as one infancy researcher put it, "is not a baby-watcher. She's a pathology-watcher."

It was his unhappiness with the retrospective approach to understanding infancy that prompted Daniel Stern, a research psychiatrist at Cornell University Medical Center, in New York City, to become involved in infancy research. "In psychiatry," Stern notes, "one of the things that you have to do all the time, after you write up cases, is to give a psychodynamic formulation—how somebody got to be the way they are. And I always found, and I think most of my colleagues found, that surmising what happened in the earliest years was one of the most painful intellectual exercises, because it was about 90 percent moonshine. You would say 'there was a trauma in the oral period, or in the mother-infant interaction.' You would weave this story. And that didn't seem right. Yet it seemed like such an important part of what everybody assumed was the beginning of things. And I never understood, when we would say, for instance, that the mother was intrusive—or whatever she was—what that would mean to the baby."

Stern and his research group are attempting to apply some of the careful observational techniques of researchers such as Fantz to an exploration not just of what babies can do but of what they may perceive and feel. Along with other such groups around the country, they are attempting to look at more than isolated infant reactions to various stimuli-at the whole range of infant behaviors, in a variety of settings. Some of these researchers are studying infants in nurseries and at home. The members of Stern's group do most of their observing in a small, carpeted, unfurnished room at Cornell's Payne Whitney Clinic. There, mothers and their infants have been coming several times a year over two-year periods to play together, observed by staff members and videotaped.

Stern, who is the author of a book called The First Relationship: Mother and Infant and of numerous articles on what he calls "the biology of interpersonal behavior," traces his interest in pre-verbal behavior to an experience he had when he was two years old. "I was very sick and in the hospital. And I had a nursemaid who spoke no English. I suspect, from what I can piece together of it, that when I was in the hospital, I didn't really understand what people around me were saying when they spoke English. Yet it mattered a great deal. And so I became a watcher. I still tend to go after the non-verbal and to dismiss the verbal. I figure that the non-verbal really tells you what's happening, and the verbal is just fine tuning."

Stern is forty-seven, trim, with wiry pepper-and-salt hair and moustache. He dresses in the linen pants and soft-leather imported shoes of a man who pays attention to clothes, but at the hospital, perhaps in order to leave no doubt as to the scientific nature of his research, he wears the traditional, stiffly starched, long white doctor's coat. Stern began his career in pharmacology research, studying the effects of drugs on the brain. "It was fascinating," he recalls, "and I was fairly committed to doing that. And slowly I realized that I was more interested in behavior." Before he could switch, however, he had to convince himself that research on the behavioral level was as legitimate as biochemical research. "There is an assumption among medical people that if you can explain a piece of behavior on a biochemical basis, then you've understood it. And it took me a long time to realize that the behavioral level was not explicable in terms of the other, that it was a level unto itself and had just as much validity. Finally, I junked the whole thing and said I wanted to work at the behavioral level. Which, strangely enough, felt like a rebellion."

After a psychiatric residency at Columbia, Stern decided he wanted to study the development of small babies. "Somebody had taken some tapes of schizophrenic mothers and their babies. And I sat for a couple of months and just watched them. That started me on the whole thing." Stern's interest shifted quickly from disturbed mother-infant pairs to normal ones. "With regard to abnormal behavior," he says, "I think the most interesting discoveries are going to end up being biochemical. I think the close looking at the development of behaviors is going to be much more relevant to understanding normal behavior than pathological. It could be that, as far as abnormalities are concerned—I mean major-league abnormalities, like autism, or childhood depression—all this research we're doing is absolutely useless. But that doesn't bother me, because having a biology of interpersonal behavior either is legitimate or it isn't."

Stern and other baby-watchers use the word "biology" because it places them in the company of scientists who observe not only humans but also the rest of the animal world. Like Fantz, whose work with human infants grew out of work with baby chimpanzees, baby-watchers hope to see their subjects freshly, by adopting the detached view of observers of other species. The aspect of such biology that interests Stern is what he calls "the scientific study of the development of human relationships," particularly during the first two years of life. "I see it as a rather slow process of putting together the pieces that will permit us to understand how a relationship develops, a task that's going to take a long time and that we're really at the very beginning of."

Stern and his group do their work in three small rooms, on three different pieces of the puzzle. In one room, Patricia Nachman, a psychologist, has set up a plywood puppet theater she calls "the infant theater." There she stages peekaboo games for seven-month-olds using a Kermit the Frog and a rabbit puppet, in an attempt to test infant memory for pleasurable experiences. Next door, another psychologist, Roanne Barnett, is working on a different project: a chart that will provide the group with some objective measures of what they see in the hours of films they have made of babies and mothers. The scale they have devised is symmetrical—both the baby's and the mother's actions and reactions are entered. (It is possible to see the facial expressions of both because two cameras, one trained on the baby's face and one on the mother's, are running at all times during the videotaping.) "What we hope to do," Barnett explains, "is devise a scale, using normal babies, which will be universally applicable and which can be used with or without a camera. It may also be useful in detecting and working with troubled infants and their parents."

On a video monitor in his office, Stern is working on a third piece of the puzzle, culling scenes from the hours of videotape of infant-mother interactions. He showed me a scene from one of the many hours of film which he calls "The Shoot-out at the OK Corral." The battle, in this case, is between nine-month-old "Michael" and his mother. The mother is seated on the floor, next to a wooden jigsaw puzzle with four large pieces: a sun, a bird, an apple, and a leaf. Calling Michael's name, she takes the leaf out of the puzzle and puts it back in again. Michael crawls over to the puzzle. His mother holds the leaf out for him. Michael takes the piece with one hand, sits back on his feet, and proceeds to raise it slowly to his mouth. "No...It's not for eating," his mother says. She takes the puzzle piece away. Michael lets out a yell—very quick but loud. "Don't you yell at your mothah," she says, in a feisty New York accent. Then, curiously, she hands him back the piece and watches while he raises it to his mouth. Catching his hand, she utters an emphatic "No." When Michael then makes a vehement sound of protest ("Uh-h-h!"), she lets go, and Michael chews on the piece, murmuring contentedly. "Taste good?" his mother asks. "It's only cardboard."

Stern is studying a particular kind of mother-baby event he calls a "prohibitive," trying to discover how a baby responds when the mother says "no." He is curious, he explains, about the degrees of prohibition and whether the baby responds differently to different versions of "no." And he is curious about how the particular reactions of each baby influence the mother. Stern sees babies and mothers as "couples"—partners in a developing relationship. In the "shoot-out" sequence, for instance, Stern notes that Michael's loud protest caused his mother to give in to him. "In this case," Stern notes, "Michael's gumption, his tenacity, is a very important determinant of how the relationship will evolve. And the message from the mother is that if he asserts himself strongly, he gets what he wants. I'm becoming more and more interested in these scripts," Stern explains, "in seeing 'a world in a grain of sand.'"

It turns out that the "shoot-out" is not an isolated incident. Michael and his mother frequently clash over the same issue: he wants to put things in his mouth and she doesn't want him to. Since it is such a pervasive theme, Stern has decided to use the films of Michael and his mother to study "prohibitives" in depth. He has looked through the films taken over the entire two-year period to find instances of Michael getting caught in the "prohibitable act"—putting something in his mouth—and has found sixty-three episodes. He has carefully documented each one of the episodes on a large chart: what the mother said, how she said it (as measured by laryngeal tension and pitch), what Michael's expression was, and what he did. A linguist, John Dore, of the City University of New York, has also been studying the exchanges, analyzing their specific word content.

The task of piecing together the sixty-three episodes into one film and charting the interactions is nearly complete. The day I visited, Stern was checking a few small details. In the observation at six months, Michael is playing with a felt-covered doll that has zippers to zip, laces to lace, and purple-felt shoes. Michael likes to chew on the shoes. At one point, Michael is chewing purposefully on the shoes when his mother says, "Don't eat the shoes." His hands move the doll downward, momentarily, from his mouth, then bring it back. Stern, attempting to see if Michael's face "sobers," rewinds and plays the incident over several times. He decides there is a brief, split-second break in the baby's momentum. (I'm not so sure I see it.)

What is powerfully clear and persuasive in this collage, however, is that Michael and his mother, from four months on, do have a set piece that they enact over and over again—what Stern calls a "standard sequence." At four months, Michael is putting a rattle in his mouth and his mother is telling him not to. Later it's a triangular wood block he tries to chew on, during a period when he's probably teething; then it's the purple shoes; another time it's the plastic donut-shaped rings from a conical stacking toy. And each time, his mother is there, telling him not to put the thing in his mouth. Sometimes she uses what Stern has called "disgustives"—phrases such as "yuck, yuck, yuck." Sometimes she uses what he calls "depressives": "You're going to eat the pieces," said with a sigh. One of these "depressives" is greeted by Michael with apparent anger. He throws the piece across the room, shouts, and knocks over the stacking cone he has been playing with. To judge from the brief filmed intervals of Michael when his mother is out of the room, it seems that he is reacting to her restrictions then, too. Left alone with the toys, he indulges in a sort of orgy—chewing on a block, on a book, on the doll's purple shoes.

Stern tells me that many other films of infant-mother couples have almost no oral "prohibitives" in them. They may well have equally discernible and persistent themes, but not this particular one. He believes that these highly individual mother-infant scripts will reappear again and again, with progressive variations, throughout life.

"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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