Report puts a pacifier on 'smarter baby' debate

By Greg Toppo

USA Today

April 3, 2007

Parents fork over billions of dollars for CDs, DVDs, toys and other products that promise to make their babies smarter and governments invest in programs to maximize children's brain development from birth through age 3. But many efforts to build "brighter babies" are doomed to failure because they are built on misinterpretations and misapplications of brain research, a report says

"While neural connections in babies' brains grow rapidly in the early years, adults can't make newborns smarter or more successful by having them listen to Beethoven or play with Einstein-inspired blocks," says Sara Mead, a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, a centrist Washington think tank.

That a baby's first three years are key for brain development is beyond dispute; scientists know that babies' brains change rapidly, growing and pruning synapses. But Mead says a few early childhood advocates have misinterpreted or misused research to suggest that if parents don't sufficiently stimulate children's brains before age 3, they'll do irreparable harm. There is no evidence that the first three years "are a singular window for growth that slams shut once children turn 3," Mead says.

She says researchers don't know enough about brain growth to say whether educational toys or lessons help: We are "far from knowing how to build a better brain."

But that hasn't stopped parents from spending billions on infant brain-building products. In 2005, the market was $2.5 billion, according to Fortune.

It also hasn't stopped lawmakers from getting involved. In 1998, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller persuaded hospitals to send home classical music CDs with every newborn. Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt persuaded lawmakers last year to spend $2 million to support Parents as Teachers, a non-profit that publishes a curriculum for children as young as newborns.

Such efforts teach parents helpful skills, says Jonathan Plucker, professor of cognitive science at Indiana University. "People are starting to almost universally acknowledge that those years are critically important."

But there's no evidence that playing your baby a Mozart CD or sitting her down in front of a Baby Einstein DVD makes a difference, he says. Research suggests stimulation is essential for early brain development, but "we don't know nearly enough to be applying it."

Officials from Baby Einstein and The Smart Baby did not respond to interview requests.

Tammy Mann, a clinical psychologist and deputy director of Zero to Three, an early-childhood advocacy group, agrees that it's an overstatement of brain research to say we can make babies smarter. But she says evidence shows that good, intensive programs, such as Early Head Start, which was developed for at-risk infants, toddlers and preschoolers, yield solid, cost-effective results.

"There is something to say about investing earlier when you're talking about children who are in particularly high-risk situations," she says.