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The baby brain-drain

 

By Dr Miriam Stoppard

Times Online
November 1, 2007

 

A few years ago I was asked to help to launch Baby Einstein in this country. I was put off by the name – images of overzealous parents hot-housing their small children in the vain hope of growing their IQs – and became more dubious when I looked at the content, which was mainly coloured patterns and music reminiscent of Fantasia, but nowhere near as attractive. I couldn’t see what this was doing for babies, so I declined.

There are now a number of similar ranges, many having names that contain the same questionable promise – Brainy Baby, Baby Bright, which claims a scientific approach, and Baby IQ which has harnessed no less a mentor than the London Symphony Orchestra. Most of these titles consist of live action or simple animation and show bright patterns, other babies and basic scenes involving animals, nature, abstracts etc.

Overall, the content of these DVDs promotes passive viewing by a baby rather than using the DVD platform as an opportunity for interactive play with a parent or carer. The majority suggest that the baby will benefit intellectually from absorbing the visual and aural content. I’m aware of no credible scientific data to back up these claims and there’s no supporting material to help to guide or reassure parents. In short, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these are products with no real benefit to babies and give parents a false notion that watching television can improve a child’s intelligence.

All parents have a fervent desire to ensure that their children are given thebest possible chance to realise their full potential. Most parents, however, are unaware that babies start to develop their brain-power from the moment that they are born. They’re wired to communicate and, moments after birth, will poke out their tongues at you if you talk animatedly while making eye-contact. They’re already developing learning skills, memory and understanding.
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In their first year, babies make half a million brain connections a second. That’s why their brains triple in weight in the first 12 months.

Brain connections grow every time that babies think and every time they move their bodies, particularly when a parent or carer is playing, talking or singing. In this nourishing environment babies’ learning opportunities are unlimited. So a baby’s brain starts to sift, sort, analyse, assess and memorise at a breath-taking pace all through the first year and nearly as rapidly during the second and third years.

However, this ripening can’t occur in a vacuum. Caring adults are needed to help children to grow their highly receptive brains by interacting with them. Not surprisingly, parents and other care-givers are crucial components in the cognitive development of their babies. But with so much conflicting information out there, parents are often confused and don’t know where to begin.

It’s tempting to clutch at straws which must be the reason why the mystique grew up around the fabled, though disputed, Mozart effect – a theory stating that classical music increases brain activity more effectively than other kinds.

The Mozart effect, though first described by a Frenchman in 1991, really surfaced only in 1993 when a US psychologist and a physicist at the University of California reported that brief exposure to a Mozart piano sonata could raise an IQ score 8-9 points. A New York Times piece in 1994 extrapolated their findings to “. . . listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter”. Subsequent studies have cast doubt on this claim. But it hasn’t stopped a slew of baby products such as Baby Mozart, Mozart for Babies, with the implied claim that they will promote, among other things, the development of logical thinking and maths ability. For parents wanting to do the best for their babies it has purchase appeal, even if in reality the benefits are unproven.

If it’s baby cognitive development you’re after, we have to look at what sights and sounds do for the brain. We can do that using a Positron Imaging Technology scan, which can map out in three dimensions what’s going on in the brain by measuring bloodflow. With this scan you can identify which activities stimulate which areas of the brain.

Watching TV, or for our purpose, looking at changing colours and images, stimulates the occipital lobes at the back of the brain. Accompanying sounds and music stimulate the temporal lobes at the sides of the brain. So far, so good, except that the part of the brain in which we’re most interested for cognitive development is the prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain and it’s left relatively untouched by either of these activities.

In babies, the prefrontal cortex grows massively in the first 12 months because it’s used for learning, thinking, memorising, expressing personality and fine-tuning social behaviour. This, in turn, cannot happen without a loving, caring, interested adult. What parents should know is that it isn’t hearing Mozart or seeing coloured images that promotes brain development, it’s hearing a care-giver’s voice, seeing the face and interacting lovingly that makes all the difference.

As it happens, in the experiments of Dr Kawashima, of Nintendo DS Brain Training fame, the prefrontal cortex lights up like a Christmas tree by reading aloud. Yes, all that early book-reading with you is what your baby really needs.

Let’s say you are a model parent, can you make your baby more intelligent? The scientific consensus says that you can’t. Nothing can. The baby’s interaction with the care-giver is all about giving her the skills and confidence to make the most of the intelligence she has, which in fact makes all the difference to successful child development.

A DVD in front of which you park your baby doesn’t help her to reach her full potential. Developing cognition does involve sight and sound, but only when mixed together with joyful human interaction through touching, talking, smiling and feeling. Then learning, memorising, socialising and motor skills all move forward together. In one year, a baby leaps from seeing a cat for the first time to understanding that her family’s cat, a picture of a cat and a toy cat, though very different, are all cats. She has learned that a cat is not only a thing but a concept with its own essential qualities. Huge!

Emotional development is much neglected but crucially important in the first 18 months. Acquiring emotional control and balance will make a baby friendly, generous, outgoing and loving, but only if a parent patiently coaches her.

And what about relationships? The relationship a child forms with her parents, and in the first instance with her mother, is the blueprint for all other relationships. Babies become social by imitating. They first imitate facial expressions, then movements, then speech, then whole patterns of behaviour. They are born longing to talk and, as I’ve said, will have a “conversation” with you from birth if you use their special language. Baby birds don’t sing if they don’t hear birdsong in their first six weeks. Human babies are much the same with speech – the more they hear and interact, the more they learn.

In August, I was contacted again by Baby Einstein (now owned by Disney) through its PR agency, which said it was looking to acquire scientific backing with expert endorsement and would I consider possibly acting as a spokesperson. This was just after an article appeared in Newsweek, reporting research from the University of Washington that for every hour that infants of 8-16 months watch videos such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby they understood 6-8 fewer words than other babies who were not exposed to such videos. Researchers said that their results pointed to these DVDs being a poor substitute for warm, human, social interaction.

Professor Fred Zimmerman, associate professor of paediatrics at Washington University, lead author of the study and interviewed by Newsweek said: “Parents are getting a very mixed message here – they are hearing loud and clear from marketers of these products that they can be very educational. But, in fact, there’s no scientific evidence.” Professor Zimmerman contends that baby videos are displacing time a child would spend with a carer. “So”, he says, “there’s a possibility that what’s on the screen is pointless, if not outright harmful. Baby videos may be undoing all the benefit of a parent’s hard work in terms of reading and story-telling.”

In the US, Professor Zimmerman believes that a third of parents have bought into claims of the marketers who promise to build vocabulary and enhance cognitive development. The baby brain industry is now worth $20 billion (£10 billion) annually, according to Susan Gregory Thomas in her book Buy, Buy Baby.

Those marketers will defend their share with every weapon and argument they can muster, including trying to get me onside. But I’ve declined a second time.

–– A spokesman for Disney says: “The company has always been committed to maintaining the highest standards of practice. Baby Einstein products are designed as interactive tools for parents – helping them to expose their little ones to the world around them in playful and enriching ways.”

 

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