Building Babies Brains: A “Back to the Future” Tale

Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.

This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on October 2, 2011.

Have you ever held a newborn in your arms and thought, “What a nice blob?” Have you bounced a 4-month-old on your knee and thought, “Geez, being a baby must be so boring!” Maybe you’ve rolled a ball back and forth to a 9-month-old and thought, “I bet my dog is smarter than this baby at playing ball!” Perhaps you’ve heard a 1-year-old speak their first word and thought, “It took you long enough!”

In our modern society, the incredible abilities of babies are sometimes considered commonplace, or even yesterday’s news.

We live in a surround-sound world, including babies. Marketing products to optimize the intelligence of your baby has been an advertiser’s dream and sometimes a parent’s nightmare. Everything from crib mattresses to baby formulas are being marketed to mothers and children alike like there is no tomorrow. Encouragement to buy the latest toy to strengthen your baby’s brain potential has been maximized by advertising with adorable babies while pacifying parental guilt. In short, buy the right stuff and you give your baby the right start.

With the explosion of early childhood research in the last 25 years, we’ve come a long way from thinking of babies as “a blank slate.” Even renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton comments on our not-too-distant past when we referred to babies in the hospital nursery as “lumps of clay.” Brazelton says, “All of the greats in our past history said that they didn’t think babies were people until 3 or 4 months of age and had been shaped by the environment… (he pauses)… Where did we get such a stupid idea?”

Indeed. Thirty years ago, I was sitting in a college class on child development, being amazed that a newborn will turn its head to its mother’s voice or may soothe more readily to the lower pitch of a male voice. Twenty-five years ago, our first child was born just as the movement for birthing rooms in hospitals was taking hold, environments that took into account optimizing the needs of the laboring mother as well as family, siblings and the newborn. Twenty years ago, Professor Heidelise Als of Harvard Medical School was breaking down walls of traditional medical models to humanize — and strengthen -— the care of premature babies in neonatal intensive care units. Nearly 15 years ago, Newsweek Magazine released its special edition, “Your Child: Birth to Three” following the 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. In her opening conference remarks, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote, “It is astonishing what we now know about the young brain and about how children develop. Fifteen years ago, we thought that a baby’s brain structure was virtually complete at birth. Now, we understand that it is a work in progress, and that everything we do with a child has some kind of potential physical influence on that rapidly-forming brain.”

On the night of the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning, I was pregnant with my third child. Sitting at a large dinner gathering to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Wimpfheimer, Vassar’s laboratory nursery school, I had no idea how much my mindset was about to change forever.

I looked out the window toward the building where I had my first child development class. It was April 17 — and snowing in Poughkeepsie. Our keynote speaker for the anniversary dinner, Ellen Galinsky, was delayed by blowing snow on the Taconic as she traveled from DC. As President of Families and Work Institute, Ellen had introduced the release of the Institute’s landmark publication, “Rethinking the Brain,” at the White House Conference that morning. That night at Vassar, her keynote address forever changed my scholarly thinking as a developmental psychologist, my professional thinking as a director of an early childhood school, and my personal thinking as a mother.

What has changed in your professional and personal lives in the last 15 years? Computers, email, cell phones, texting, skyping, international webinars … the list goes on. It is not an accident that these technological advances in a digital world that have changed our lives also forever changed our understanding of human development and learning.

Yet in our eagerness and even anxiety to ramp it up to “keep up,” I believe we’ve sometimes sent an unintentional message: more is always better. In my next few columns, I will focus on various aspects of the cutting edge of science and child development research through my work with Ellen Galinsky and Mind in the Making. I will also ponder some tough questions and cautionary tales. I hope you will join me in this adventure of a lifetime!

Photo/image by: Marina Thompson – MamaT /