| Child Health + Development | New Baby | New Parents | Ages 0–2

Inside your baby's brain

A mother holds her baby in her lap, but the sound of a bird makes Mom turn her head to see. Her baby looks first at Mom's face, and then follows the direction of her mother's gaze toward that same bird. Two people united by one focus.

This delicate moment may never get written down in a baby book. There's no sticker on the Baby's First Year calendar for "follows Mom's gaze." But Seattle scientist Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D., recognizes it for a milestone. He published a study explaining that this moment can predict how well that same child will use words at age 2. The shared attention signals a big accomplishment for the baby's brain.

When she notices her Mom's eyes point toward exciting things, she's learning to synchronize her own gaze with that of her beloved mother. That's a newly emerging milestone in the still-mysterious journey toward language. This journey is not just about thinking but about emotional connections, too.

Local research looks at how infants learn 

The anatomy of that journey, in tiny step after tiny step, is the focus of several research centers in Seattle, where early learning and infant development have attracted federal grant money and private philanthropy. For example, prominent philanthropists Bruce and Jolene McCaw created Talaris Research Institute, after their experience as new parents convinced them the world needed more information on the latest neuroscience.

Talaris has partnered with public television stations across the country to broadcast short educational messages about infant development, and it also provides financial support to Meltzoff and others in the Institute for Learning and Brain Science. In the plain brick buildings behind the University of Washington Medical Center, known as "I-labs," scientists see about 3,000 babies and children every year. Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, through their well-known foundation, have promised donations of millions of dollars over several years toward what the state calls its Early Learning Initiative. Talaris has also invested in the research of the UW's John Gottman, Ph.D., who is investigating how to strengthen couples as they face the challenge of bringing a baby home.

"We have a confluence of world-class research... coupled with a visionary philanthropic community and legislators in Olympia who have really done their homework," Meltzoff says.

Whether new parents are overwhelmed with information or they are curious beyond reason about baby neurons, this geographic area carries clout in brainpower studying baby brains. Some of this is basic science, trying to pinpoint the physical regions in the brain that correspond to specific developmental steps in an infant's learning. Other studies focus more on applying what is known to treat and support families at risk. Still more is aimed at devising ways to educate the public, and bring political muscle to changing how society views youngsters.

Meltzoff and his wife, Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D., are co-directors of the three-year-old Institute for Learning and Brain Science. The couple might be best known for the book they co-wrote with Alison Gopnick, Ph.D., The Scientist in the Crib. They compared themselves as scientists looking through the crib bars, to the powerful scientist-infant looking back out.

Amazing techniques that allow live images of a brain's activity, as well as sensors of the brain's electrical signals, are opening windows into the unique abilities of the infant brain. Rather than see it as an empty vessel, filled slowly with experience, research suggests that the infant brain is a dynamic analyzer from the earliest moments of life. The institute has five main themes of its research: milestones of learning; the brain's plasticity and mechanisms of change; the links connecting brain and behavior; nature and nurture; and the links between computer learning and biological learning.

"Every month, a faculty member, post-doc, or graduate student discovers something we did not know before," Meltzoff says.

Kuhl and Meltzoff are just two among a host of local luminaries who are conducting research on child development and emerging public policy and putting that knowledge to use. Walk across some lawns from their Institute, and you'll find another star, Kathryn Barnard, R.N., Ph.D., who applies neuroscience findings to help identify infants and others at risk. Several years ago, Barnard received the Institute of Medicine's prestigious Lienhard Award, a national honor given for discoveries in infant development.

Barnard studies the bond between mother and child. A difficult pregnancy, a premature birth or the trauma of poverty or abuse can weaken that bond. A mother who is depressed, for example, may not respond typically to her baby's needs, and that baby may become loud and difficult to console, caught in a spiral that makes the mother less and less confident.

As director of the UW's Center for Infant Mental Health, Barnard hopes to apply some of the discoveries about infants to rescuing them from damage in their early years. Although she has plans to retire later this year, she feels very cheered by the momentum built up in this state. She's been an advisor, along with others noted here, to the State of Washington for several years, helping to develop the Early Learning Initiative that Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law in February. That initiative will focus more state resources on children younger than school age, and will try to set standards for higher-quality care in preschools. Details are still being worked out on precisely how the state will work with a public-private partnership to improve early learning. According to Talaris spokeswoman Cherylynne Crowther, the partnership has chosen the name "Thrive by Five."

What Barnard's center does is help train therapists to work with all sorts of parents, from teen mothers to mothers who have suffered traumas, to try to help them harmonize with their growing babies. One of the tools they use looks like a game: a set of cards called "BabyCues: A child's first language."

On each glossy card is face after delightful face, some smiling and some looking shy, but every one chosen by the researchers as an example of a cue that a caregiver should be able to understand. When therapists work with parents, they ask them to sort these cards -- one pile for faces that seem to be saying "yes," and the other for faces that seem to be saying "no." For example, a baby on a card is putting her hands in her mouth. Barnard says that is a signal that she wants to take a break, what researchers call disengagement. On the back, each card explains the cue given by the child's face. Some cues are subtle and some are more obvious. The crying face definitely says "I need a break." Each card illustrates either engagement or disengagement.

Parents who easily recognize cues will know what their infant wants or needs and will have an easier job of parenting. They will learn their baby's rhythms and feel confident in their own ability, and that is central to the baby's own healthy development.

"If I had a soapbox," Barnard says, "I would stand up and say: Talk to your baby." She doesn't mean trying to force information on the infant in an artificial way, but rather giving in to the natural sing-song patter that babies seem to love.

In her laboratory, Kuhl calls that natural way of speaking to babies "motherese" or "parentese." She found in research across different cultures worldwide that this parent patter is remarkably similar, even in different languages. The exaggeration that comes naturally to adults when talking to babies appears to help them analyze and the babies begin to understand language.

What Kuhl and others study on a typical day in the lab might appear quite ordinary on the surface. A mother and child sit in a comfy chair while researchers play sounds into headphones for the child. Cutting-edge technology shares space with toys and changing tables. Stretch caps in pastel colors hang over the changing table here. Each cap has a rainbow-colored computer ribbon cable trailing from it like a comet's tail. When a baby wears the cap, the child's brain is being monitored by between 22 and 32 sensors that pick up brain activity in the form of ERP, or event-related brain potential. Think of the caps as listening and mapping the electrical activity in the brain. Each cap is plugged into software that records the session, noting with precision where in the brain the activity spiked and at precisely what sound.

It is just these hours and hours of observation that led Kuhl several years ago to a conclusion that has had wide reverberations. She found that 6-month-old babies, exposed to some unique sounds in a foreign language, could distinguish the same sounds accurately years later. Similar infants who were not exposed lost the ability to distinguish these sounds by about a year of age.

Kuhl has called the younger babies "citizens of the world" because their brains seem capable of distinguishing any language. However, if the baby is not exposed to more than one language, it appears to narrow its focus and become specialized in only its native tongue.

In an article in Time magazine in January, Kuhl argued that many CDs and DVDs sold as "educational" for babies might be missing another important element of this equation. When she played recordings of Mandarin for babies in her speech research, they did not seem to perceive the special sounds of the language as well as babies who had a living, breathing human speaking that language to them. The bottom line: People are the best teachers.

"We can't buy any toy that replaces the value of the social-emotional interaction with the baby," Meltzoff points out. "Some baby books and scientific theories tend to separate the mental and the emotional, but in real, live, hot-blooded human beings, emotions and thoughts weave together. We are 'in the flow' when both mind and heart are working seamlessly together."

Barnard likes to make much the same point for parents in a different way. She tells them that cuddling and talking to a baby bathes her in a rich sensory bath. The baby feels the warm touch of the parent's arms and chest, inhales the smell of the familiar, feels the beat of the parent's heart, hears the cooing sounds of a voice, and sees the lively face above. In the cold language of the lab, this stimulates visual, tactile, auditory and olfactory systems. Plastic toys and television programs don't provide that rich bath of sensation or the emotional connection with a loving person.

"You are your baby's favorite play-thing," Meltzoff concludes.

Babies and language: from lab to neighborhood

The Sponge School opened in November 2005. With a 10-week pilot program, Mighdoll quickly signed up about 140 families for the school, located in the Mount Baker neighborhood.

Parents bring babies as young as 31/2 months to the weekly sessions, where they hear and sing one of four languages -- Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and French -- from teachers who are native speakers. During the roughly hour-long sessions at Sponge, teachers lead the children and parents in singing, dancing, play with puppets, and other immersion in phrases from the language.

"I created the school because I had read about Kuhl's research and that of others," explains Mighdoll, who was pregnant at the time with her son. "There was a gap in what services were offered for the very young." Her son, now age 2, attends classes in both Japanese and Mandarin.

Mighdoll brings a variety of life experiences, including growing up in bilingual Canada and time teaching in Japan, to her passion for language and culture. She has master's degrees in business and international studies.

"We are creating a love of language and culture," in the children, she says. The emphasis at Sponge, she adds, is not on children's proficiency with the target language, but rather their exposure to a natural and playful environment where they hear a native speaker.

Sally James is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three.

Infant brain research resources:



Originally published in the April, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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