Caution: Learning Ahead

how babies learnBy Robin Heinz Bratslavsky

It’s no secret that babies learn at an incredible speed. But how babies learn might feel like a bit of a mystery. Fortunately, lots of researchers have stepped up to help us understand how and why our babies do the things they do.

A new study published in Psychological Sciences reveals that infants develop an awareness of heights as early as 9 months of age. Researchers found that this ‘wariness’ occurs based on the infant’s experience with locomotor activity. “In our studies, both infants with a few weeks of crawling experience and infants with experience driving a baby go-cart showed wariness of heights,” said Audun Dahl, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of the study.

Dahl says his team was investigating how infants develop an awareness of heights and associated danger. “In the second half of the first year, the signs of [wariness] we are seeing are primarily a reluctance to crawl onto a transparent glass above a 1.1meter drop, and increased heart-rate acceleration upon lowering toward that transparent surface (compared with when the infant is lowered onto a solid-looking surface),” Dahl said. “In past and current research from our laboratories, both of these [indicators reveal] that most infants with some locomotor experience are, indeed, afraid of drop-offs.” This finding helps explain how and why babies are able to navigate their environment.

Self-locomtion, Dahl said, “is a very distinct event in early development that engenders an array of psychological and behavioral changes in the infant.”

More about how babies learn

How else do babies learn? Facial recognition is one area in which babies are quick studies. Babies learn to recognize their mother’s face early, because “the mother’s face is accompanied by her sound, to which newborn babies have already been exposed (in utero) for several months,” said Scott P. Johnson, Ph.D., professor of psychology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. Johnson said that the mother’s smell also helps babies develop facial recognition of their mothers.

It appears that babies learn about their environment in many different ways. “We have found that infants learn abstract patterns from human speech better than from other kinds of auditory signals (such as musical tones or animal sounds),” said Johnson. Research has found, Johnson said, that even newborn infants can learn some kinds of visual sequences that they have never seen before. “This suggests that [infants experience] a mixture of learning processes.”

See more: Will Breastfeeding Make Your Baby Smarter?