puts a pacifier on 'smarter baby' debate
By Greg Toppo
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
a report says
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.
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