What do you see when you look at a newborn baby, bright-eyed, gazing straight at you? Is there really a person there? Silently frowning or beet-red with rage, can this baby think and feel? For its small size, a newborn makes a powerful, compelling noise, but is it actually saying anything?
Until recently, there were many theories about newborns but few known facts. For uncounted centuries, infants have been separated from the rest of us by a veil of ignorance. As close as we have been to them, we did not know how amazing they are.
Common wisdom about babies was based on the obvious limitations of their size, weight, and muscle power. Consequently, babies were described as sometimes adorable but incapable, subhuman, pre-human, dull, and senseless, and treated as such. Twentieth-century science has held that infant cries were only “random” sounds, their smiles only “gas,” and their expressions of pain simply “reflexes.” Misinformation about the newborn has made parenthood more difficult and infancy more miserable.
A brighter future has been dawning for infants. In the last twenty-five years, research on the newborn has flourished. An unprecedented combination of interest in infants, investment of large sums of public and private money, and innovative methods of study has resulted in new information, much of it surprising. Contributions to our widening knowledge of the newborn come from diverse fields of science from embryology to psychology.
This book gathers the most important facts from this wide literature for a general audience, especially new or prospective parents. Leading researchers now sing the praises of infants. Harvard’s Berry Brazelton calls them “talented“; Hanus Papousek, a German pioneer in infant studies, calls them “precocious“; famed pediatrician, Marshall Klaus calls them “amazing.” Professor T.G.R. Bower, one of the most innovative of all infant researchers, declares that newborns are “extremely competent” in perception, learning, and communication.
Babies have come of age in our century. Because so much has been discovered and momentum is still building, I think this will prove to be the century of the newborn, the time when we finally reach a full and factual knowledge of who they are. At the beginning of this century, only a handful of scientific papers about infants could be counted worldwide. By mid-century, almost five hundred could be cited. In the 1960s and 1970s, serious reviews of this literature suddenly had to cover at least two thousand books and papers. This information explosion continues. Infants have been measured inside, and out, filmed with cameras permitting analysis down to microseconds, watched for hours on end, and tested in clever experiments. Results show that they pick up information constantly and learn from their experience much as we do. One of the exciting aspects of this new knowledge is the verification of infant abilities at earlier and earlier ages. Timetables estimating the ages at which particular talents are expected to appear have had to be revised again and again, bringing them closer to birth. Many abilities are innate and adult-like, surprising investigators and ruining theories. A fundamental rule of developmental psychology -that all complex behaviors must start as simple behaviors and develop gradually-has become obsolete. Surprisingly, many behaviors start out complex.
The truth is, much of what we have traditionally believed about babies is false. We have misunderstood and underestimated their abilities. They are not simple beings but complex and ageless, small creatures with unexpectedly large thoughts.
Babies know more than they were supposed to know. After only minutes of repeated exposure to its mother’s face after birth, a baby can pick her out from a gallery of photos. Babies recognize the gender of other babies, even when cross-dressed, provided they are moving-something adults cannot do. They are mentally curious and eager to learn. Consider how smoothly the senses are coordinated at birth: eyes turn with the head in the direction of a sound; hands go up to protect eyes from bright light; the first time at the breast, the baby knows how to suckle and breathe in perfect synchrony; they shriek and pull away from a heel lance.
The territory of life before birth has also been charted as never before. Through the wizardry of the scanning electron microscope, fiber optics and special lenses, ultrasound imaging, and other measuring devices and laboratory techniques, we now have a comprehensive picture of development of all parts of the physical system before birth. These discoveries have added to our understanding of the baby’s many talents. Neuroscientists have discovered the timetable for development of the entire nervous system, For example, studies show that the sense of taste begins functioning around fourteen weeks after conception, and the sense of hearing around twenty weeks. After only eight weeks of gestation, stroking the baby’s cheeks with a fine hair produces consistent reactions indicating that tactile sensitivity has already been established. During gestation, all the structures are set in place that will enable the newborn to use the sense of smell as well as any adult. Similar preparations are made for use of a wide range of visual talents.
Learning before birth has even been demonstrated in many experiments. A host of scientific discoveries provides formal verification of what many parents and grandparents have known all along: newborns are real persons. Parental enthusiasm about newborn abilities used to be dismissed as vanity, bias, or hallucination.
Now science confirms that infants are social beings who can form close relationships, express themselves forcefully, exhibit preferences, and begin influencing people from the start. They are capable of integrating complex information from many sources and, with a little help from their friends, begin regulating themselves and their environment.
David B Chamberlain