“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
The popularity of services such as Skype and FaceTime are a great opportunity for children to communicate in new ways. But how well do children actually learn via video chat? New research from the Lafayette College, USA, has found that 1 to 2 year olds can learn new information and develop relationships through real-time video chat.
In the study, toddlers either watched a pre-taped video or participated in a live video chat with a person . In both cases, the person taught them some new words and read a peek-a-boo book. The toddlers who did the live video chat performed better than those who watched the pre-taped video in many areas- they learnt more new words and better remembered the question-answer pattern of the book. They also more often recognised and preferred the person over a stranger when interacting in real life.
The finding is surprising because previous research has found that children generally learn less well through non-interactive video, than live experiences. According to this study it seems that video chat doesn’t seem to run into the same problem. The researchers suggest this is because video chat is socially contingent; much like real-life interactions, video chat allows the children and their partner to respond to each other’s actions and gestures in real-time.
It is important to note that in this experiment, the researchers didn’t compare video chat to real life interactions, so we don’t know whether the two are equally effective learning formats. But the study does suggest we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Skype or Facetime as just another kind of “screen time”; Facetiming with grandma may be an effective way to maintain relationships and learn new things.
At the Early Learning Project we have UNSW undergraduates come and help out with our research projects as part of an internship scheme. One of our interns, Georgia, has just finished the third year of her bachelor of psychology at UNSW. Throughout the third year of her degree she has been helping out with our intergenerational study so I caught up with her to find out more about the research she’s been doing.
Tell me about the research project you’ve been doing this year
My research was an intergenerational study with local preschoolers and dementia patients at a nursing home. Once a week the children from the preschool go and have a play session with the residents over the course of 6 months. We wanted to find out if going to visit the residents would have an effect on the children’s social and emotional development.
How did you do this?
We ran several tasks with the kids that measure their emotional and social development before they started going to see the residents. After the 6 month period we had them perform the same tasks again to see if they improved. Naturally as the children grow older they do better on the tasks that we set them, so a second group of children from the centre who didn’t taken part in the intergenerational program do the same tasks and act as the control group . In this way we can see how much of the improvement in children’s socio-emotional skillsis due to just getting older and how much is due to spending time with the residents. We are currently still doing the last few tasks with the children so we don’t have any results yet
Why did you decide to take part in this project?
I wanted to do a developmental psychology project because I’ve always loved working with kids. I took a developmental psychology course last year and loved it, so I decided to pursue it on Jenny’s internship program. When I joined the program Jenny proposed the study for me to help out with. There have been some other research that has shown programs like this improve the dementia patient’s engagement and mood compared to a normal activities like reading and reminiscing, but there has not been much research into how these programs might benefit the children’s development, which is why I found it so interesting.
What were the best and most difficult things about this project?
The most difficult part was the time commitment. It takes about half an hour to finish all the tasks with each child, so I had to go to the preschool a lot, as well as balancing all of this with uni and work. The best thing was learning how to carry out a range of tasks to measure the children’s social and emotional abilities, and also being able to conduct observational research on the residents.
What are you planning on doing next?
Once we’ve finished testing the kids I’m going to analyse the results and write up the research for publication. I’m hoping to get into the honours program next year to carry on with developmental research, and after I finish my thesis I’d like to go on to do a clinical masters.
What are your plans for this summer?
I work at IKEA so I will continue to work there while I’m writing up my research. I’m also planning on going away down south to Bateman’s Bay. I haven’t had a lot of free time this year so I’m going to catch up with my friends and walk my dog.
It is perhaps now common knowledge that babies are born with with the ability to recognise their mother’s voice, however, in the early 1980s this was not the case. Thanks to Tony DeCasper, who sadly passed away in July this year aged 75, we now have a much greater understanding of what babies learn before they are even born. Throughout his scientific career he performed groundbreaking research into prenatal experiences and how they affect future development. His research found that not only do newborn infants prefer the sound of their mother’s voice to other female voices, they will also actively work to produce the sound of their mother’s voice over another voice. He also performed the famous “The-Cat-in-the-Hat” studies, which provided the first direct evidence that infants form memories before they are even born.
Research on newborn infants is much more difficult than testing older infants and adults. In studies with older babies, we can find out what they have learned and which stimulus they prefer by measuring where they look or which object they reach for. Such techniques, however, cannot be used with newborn infants because they do not have the necessary motor skills. DeCasper’s early research focused on learning in animal models and when he decided to change his research participants from pigeons to newborns, he had to come up with a novel way to measure what babies’ might have learned before they were born. His technique, called high amplitude sucking, capitalises on a reflex that babies are all born with, that is to suck things that are put into their mouth. In high amplitude sucking studies, babies are given a dummy that is connected to a pressure monitor. The researchers play different sounds to the baby through special headphones and measure how fast they sucking on the dummy.
In his original research on newborn infants, babies younger than 3 days old learned how they could “choose” between two different recordings by changing how quickly they sucked on the dummy. One of the recordings was their mother’s voice, while the other was the voice of an unfamiliar woman. Amazingly, the babies chose to hear their own mother’s voice over another female voice, indicating they prefer listening to the familiar sound of their mum.
These results suggested that infants learn about the sound of their mum’s voice in the womb and recognise it after they are born, but do they simply remember what she sounds like, or perhaps are they listening and learning about what she says too? To test this idea, DeCasper designed the now famous“The-Cat-in-the-Hat” studies. In these studies, mums were asked to read Dr. Seuss’s book “The Cat-in-the-Hat” to their baby in the 6 weeks prior to birth. When tested using the high amplitude sucking procedure shortly after birth, babies preferred to listen to “The-Cat-in-the-Hat” over a different book that they had not heard before, even when it was read to them by a stranger. This extraordinary research provided the first direct experimental evidence that babies in the womb are learning about not only just the characteristics of their mother’s voice, but the content too.
Next time you call out to tell your child it’s time to go home don’t forget they learnt to recognise the sound of your voice before they were born, and we only know this thanks to the amazing work by Tony DeCasper.
If you have ever sat a baby in front of a mirror, you know that they tend to get pretty excited and often make faces, talk to, and poke at their reflection in the glass. The question is, do they understand that they are looking at a reflection of their own image? Early developmental research used a “mirror test” to measure self recognition. In this task, researchers put a red spot on the baby’s nose and then code their reactions when they are placed in front of a mirror. The logic is if the baby understands that the baby they are looking at in the mirror is themselves, they will try and rub the spot off their nose. You can try this at home; on average, about half of 18-month olds will try to rub the spot off their face.
The mirror test has come under fire though, because much of the research has been conducted with infants from WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) countries. Older infants and children in rural, non-Western cultures do not consistently react in the same way as so called “WEIRD” babies to the spot on their nose when they see themselves in a mirror. For example, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology found that only 2 of the 82 Kenyan children in the study aged between 18 and 72 months “passed” the mirror test. These results suggest that the mirror test might be measuring more about experience with mirrors, than self-recognition per se.
Given these limitations, researchers have started to look at other ways of assessing self-recognition in babies, including measuring the changes in the electrical activity produced by the brain when infants look at faces.
Researchers from the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in the Netherlands used electroencephalogram (or EEG) to measure infants’ brain activity while 18 month old infants looked at pictures of their own face, the face of another infant, their parent and an unfamiliar person. For 13 of the 18 infants tested, the brain responses were bigger when babies looked at a picture of themselves relative to when they looked at a picture of another infant’s face.
Researcher also tested the same group of babies on the the mirror test, and much like previous research, showed that about half the babies noticed the red mark on their face and touched it. If the mirror test and the brain response measures are both indexing infants’ ability to recognise themselves in the mirror, we might expect that only those who pass the mirror test would show the differential brain response. However, when researchers compared the brain responses of the babies who passed the mirror test and those who did not there was no significant difference in the brain activity of the two groups.
This research suggests that most babies have the capacity to recognise their own image and distinguish it from images of other people as early as 18 months, however, only half of them will respond to their reflection in the mirror by touching the mark on their face. By measuring more than just behaviour, new tools such as EEG give more nuanced insight into complex phenomenon like self recognition.
The mirror test is still fun and you should give it a go at home. Don’t worry if your 18-month old doesn’t rub off the spot though. This research suggests that they understand that the face in the mirror is their own, they just don’t care that their nose looks funny.
As the pre-Christmas hype is building, I have seen more and more news articles with headings like “Don't tell children Father Christmas is real because lying to children could damage them, warn experts” and “Lying About Santa Claus Could Undermine Kids' Trust In Their Parents, Say Psychologists.” The media have been writing about an essay that was published in the The Lancet Psychiatry by UK psychologists Christopher Boyle and Kathy McKay. The essay argues that we shouldn’t lie to our children about Father Christmas because it damages our relationships with them and stops us from being relied upon as “guardians of wisdom and truth.”
This seems like an odd concept to me; all of my childhood Christmas memories are of thinking it was so magical that Santa could come down the chimney with his elves, flying on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Even when I found out the truth about Father Christmas I still loved trying to keep the secret from my little sister and brother, even if it did take a bit of magic out of Christmas for me. I decided to have a look at data to see if there is any evidence that telling children that Santa is real might be damaging for them.
The main argument against telling children about Father Christmas is that lying to children makes them mistrust their parents. It is true that research has shown that children mistrust adults who lie to them. Researchers from the University of Rochester in New York set up a situation in which the experimenter promised the child new art supplies and then either delivered on that promise (i.e. was shown to be reliable) or did not deliver (i.e. lied to the child). Children were then tested on the classic marshmallow task. The experimenter gave each child one marshmallow and told them that they were going to go and get more marshmallows. The experimenter told the child that they could have a second one, only if they could wait and refrain from eating the one they were given until the experimenter came back. The results showed that children who had previously been lied to by the experimenter only waited 3 minutes to eat the marshmallow, while children who had not been lied to waited on average 4 times longer! In this study, however, it was a stranger who lied to the children, and the only experience with this adult they had to base their trust on was the previous lie they had told. We don’t know whether the results would be the same if it was their parents who had lied to them.
The authors of these anti-Santa articles all seem to be working under the assumption that children believe lying is wrong in all circumstances, and have no concept of a socially acceptable or so called “white lie”. There is, however, some research to contradict this assumption. Victoria Talwar and colleagues from Canada gave children between the ages of 3 and 11 a gift that they knew the children did not want (i.e. a bar of plain white soap). When the researchers asked the children if they liked their gift nearly 70% of children lied, even without being told to by their parents. This percentage rose to nearly 90% when parents told their kids to tell a “white lie”, suggesting even very young children are aware that it is sometimes ok to lie. As children got older, the likelihood of them telling a lie also increased; 74% of preschoolers (age 3 to 5) told a “white lie,” while 84% of children aged 9-11 knew that it was ok to lie to prevent hurting someone’s feelings.
Boyle and McKay also do not acknowledge that Father Christmas is not the only lie that parents tell to their children. In fact, in one survey from the USA found that 78% of parents reported lying to their children at least once, despite the majority of them reporting that they were strongly committed to teaching their children that lying is wrong.
So, what does all of this mean for poor old Father Christmas? Parents have been telling their children about him for hundreds of years and Boyle and Mckay’s opinion is just that, an opinion. There is no empirical data to suggest that lying about Santa is harmful to children. Ultimately the only person who can decide whether you want your children to experience the delight that comes from the magical fantasy is you, the parent.
Most parents are all too familiar with the experience of asking their preschooler what they want for dinner, only to be frustrated that by the time dinner time arrives their child no longer wants the food they were craving only hours earlier. Research suggests this might happen because until around 5 years old, children have difficulty thinking about how they might feel even in the immediate future. Preschooler’s decisions for the future are also heavily influenced by what they want right now. However, it is possible that allowing children to satisfy their current desires might make it easier for them to make decisions for the future.
My honours thesis project investigated this idea in 4-year-old children. I showed children pairs of images and asked them to tell me which item they liked; in each pair, one item was something a child would typically like (e.g. a juice box) while the other was something an adult would typically like (e.g. coffee). I asked some children to tell me what they like right now and then I asked them what they might like when they are grown up. Other children were asked to tell me what they might like as a grown up before they told me what they like right now.
When 4-year-old children were asked to tell me what they might like best as a grown up first, they tended to choose the items an adult would prefer and the items a child would prefer roughly equally; they pretty much chose at random. However, children who were allowed to tell me what they liked now before they had to choose what they might like as a grown up, were much better at choosing the appropriate items, i.e. coffee, for their grown up selves.
We think that this order effect occurs because it is easier for children to tell us they might like coffee when they are a grown up if their current desire to tell us that they really like juice boxes has been satisfied.
If children are better at thinking about their future once current desires have been satisfied, we wondered if allowing children to physically interact with the items they desired might also make it easier to think about future preferences. To test this hypothesis, children in another group were allowed to play with all of the items that children typically prefer before they were asked about what they might like as a grown up.
Surprisingly, we found that the play session was beneficial for boys but detrimental for girls. Boys were better at telling us they might like coffee as a grown up after they drank a juice box, thus satisfying their desire for juice. On the other hand, girls were more likely to choose a juice box for their grown up selves after they had drank one.
We think that this may have happened because the play session was enough to fulfil boy’s desires, but not long enough to fulfil girl’s desires. The play session involved sitting down at a table interacting with items with a female experimenter. We know from previous research that girls prefer to play with girls, and boys prefer to play with boys. In addition, girls enjoy this type of quiet play more than boys. So perhaps boys got bored of the items quite quickly, while for girls the 15 minutes of play was just enough to remind them of how much they love juice boxes, Play-Doh, picture books, sticker books and Play School.
So what does this all mean for parents? Well, our research might suggest that if you want to know what your preschooler really wants to eat for dinner, try asking them what they want to eat right now first!
As the end of the Semester approaches we unfortunately have to say goodbye to some of the students that have been doing research at the Early Learning Project this year. I caught up with our Honours Student, Amelia, to find out about her thesis and what her plans are now that she has finished her degree.
Tell me about the research project you undertook for your thesis
For my thesis I was looking at future thinking in 4-year-olds, and how they understand that their preferences for objects mightchange in the future. In the experiment I showed 4-year-olds two pictures, one of them was something children generally like (e.g. apple juice) and the other something that adults generally likes (e.g. coffee). For each pair of pictures, we asked the child which they like now, and which they will like in the future. For some of the children we asked what they like now first, whereas other children were asked what they will like when they’re grown up first. We also wanted to test whether getting to play with the items that children generally like first, would help children be better able to inhibit their choices for those items when they were asked abuot what they might like in the future so half of the children got to drink apple juice and play with the child-preferable toys and the other half of children got to play with other things before we asked them about their preferences.
What did you find?
In general, all of the children who were asked their current preferences first were subsequently better at saying they might like adult-preferable things in the future in the second part of the experiment. I also found that including a play session did not affect the girls’ responses about their preferences, however, when the boys had a play session before being asked their preferences they were better at identifying that their preferences might change when they are grown up.
Why did you choose to research this topic?
I like kids, I have 7 younger brothers and sisters under the age of 10! So I knew I wanted to do developmental research for my thesis. I find future thinking really interesting and had previously read a paper by some psychologists who had performed a similar study, but I thought that there was a gap in the research for seeing in which circumstances the children’s ability to think about the future might change. I added the play session to the experiment to find out if the children’s future thinking improved after experiencing playing with the toys.
What was the biggest challenge for your research?
Recruiting 4-year-olds is very difficult compared to adults. Because I had chosen to do a developmental project it meant that I was still testing children until about 2 weeks before my thesis was due in! It was worth the effort though to be able to play with some very cute kids, although if I were to do the project again I would definitely try and stick to a specific time frame and not leave writing my thesis until the very last minute!
What are your plans now that you’ve finished?
This summer I’m going to Malaysia for my brother’s wedding which I am very excited about. It’s a traditional Indian wedding so it will go on for a few days! I also currently do applied behavioural analysis therapy with kids with autism. I might carry on to do a masters in a couple of years, or if not I’ll carry on with ABA therapy. For now I’m enjoying going to the beach and spending time with my friends and family.
Congratulations Amelia for completing your Honours degree and we would like to wish you the best of luck in the future.
I was immensely proud to watch our Ph.D. student Amy Datyner walk across the stage today in the Clancy Auditorium to receive her Ph.D. and Master of Psychology (Clinical) degrees. Amy joined the lab in 2012, already a year into her Masters program. Her research interests centre around empathy development in infants and preschoolers and during her Ph.D. she used tiny sensors to record the activity produced by muscles on the face while children were looking at pictures of different emotions (read more about this method here). She was particularly interested to see whether babies and young children automatically "mimic" facial expressions of emotion like we do as adults. Consistent with studies of adults, her results found that when infants and children looked at pictures of happy faces, the muscles in the cheek that would produce a smile contracted. Unexpectedly though, when infants and children looked at pictures of angry faces, she didn't see any activation of the muscles in the brow. Her results show that infants and children mimic some emotional expressions but not others, which has important implications for our understanding of how emotion sharing responses develop. Read more about Amy's work in our blog post here.
Congratulations Amy from all of us!
Down Syndrome, which results from the presence of an extra copy of chromosome 21, is the most common cause of intellectual disability. Because it is caused by a genetic abnormality, people most often think that the learning difficulties that are characteristic of Down Syndrome must be present from birth. Research from our lab has questioned this assumption, however, showing that while preschoolers with Down Syndrome have general cognitive delays, their learning and memory abilities are no worse than typically-developing children who are matched on mental age. In short, children with Down Syndrome may “grow into” their learning difficulties.
In these studies, we recruited 3- to 5-year-old children with Down Syndrome and typically-developing children of the same mental age. The typically-developing children had the same level of cognitive ability as the Down Syndrome children, but were younger in chronological age. The children were tested on a number of “games” to find out how good the children were at remembering things we showed them. In one of these games, we hid a toy in a box and asked the children to find the toy after two minutes. We then hid another toy in the box and had children remember where it was 24 hour later. In another task we showed the children how to put together a toy rattle in 3 steps. The next day we asked children to imitate the actions that we used to make the rattle.
The results showed that when compared to children who had the same mental age, preschoolers with Down Syndrome did not exhibit any learning and memory impairments. Children with Down Syndrome were just as likely to find the toy that was hidden in the box after a delay, and remembered the same number of actions that were required to assemble the rattle.
These results are important because they highlight that the preschool years may be an important period for early intervention for children with Down Syndrome. Future research will determine whether it is possible to design interventions that would allow children’s learning development abilities keep pace with their cognitive development, thus preventing the disproportionate learning impairments that are common in Down Syndrome.
Lynette Roberts conducted this research as part of her PhD thesis. The work was published in Developmental Science and you can watch Lynette talking about it here. If you are interested in participating in research looking at learning and memory development in typically developing infants and children, or know anyone who might me, join our Baby Scientists here.
Have you ever wondered why you are so good at picking up on how your friends are feeling? Is this ability to catch emotion from others, known as affective empathy, instinctive from birth, or do we learn how to share emotions with other people?
As adults, when we look at people’s faces, we rapidly and unconsciously move the muscles in our face to mirror the expression of the person we are looking at. So if we look at a happy person, the muscles in our cheeks that would normally be activated when we are smiling contract a tiny bit. This movement is so small that it is invisible to the naked eye and you don’t even know you are doing it. Luckily, thanks to some amazing technology, we can now measure these minuscule movements. Scientists believe that this automatic mirroring of the movements involved in expressing emotion is what helps us to be able to tell how others are feeling so rapidly. By mimicking others emotion, we can quickly come to understand respond to their emotions in an appropriate way, avoiding any awkward situations. This poses an interesting question to developmental psychologists: when does this rapid facial responding start happening?
At the Early Learning Project we want to find out if this mimicry response is something that we are born with, or if babies have to learn to share emotion with other people. Our PhD student, Amy Datyner, recorded the muscle movement of 7-month-old infants using electromyography, or EMG. Babies wore tiny sensors placed on their cheek and brow while we showed them pictures of lots of happy and angry faces.
Our research found that babies do activate the smiling muscles when they look at happy faces, but they do not activate frowning muscles when they see angry faces. This finding suggest that rapid facial mimicry is not necessarily present at birth and does not necessarily occur in response to all kinds of emotion expression early in life.
Why do infants mimic happy but not angry face? It is possible that we can explain this result by thinking about how much infants are exposed to different emotions. Afterall, how often do people get angry at little babies? And who can resist smiling at them?
This is the first time that this muscle movements have been used to record mimicry in infants and our study has provided exciting new evidence about how babies learn to share emotional reactions with other people. . Our research shows that babies share positive emotional reactions with people early on, so next time you’re playing with your baby, don’t forget they know how you’re feeling- and might even be mimicking you without even realising it.
Amy’s manuscript is under revision at Developmental Psychobiology and we are planning a followup study to look at whether infants are more likely to mimic emotional expressions shared by a caregiver relative to a stranger, so if you are interested in getting involved or know someone who might be, contact us on email@example.com or visit our website www.earlylearningsydney.com
Why does your baby like that particular scrappy grey rabbit that is no longer really grey and has almost lost one of its ears? You might wonder how that strong preference for a particular object came about?
New research from our lab shows that infants’ preferences for objects can be manipulated by pairing emotional stimuli with initially-neutral objects, a process that is known as evaluative conditioning.
In these studies, we showed 6- to 7-month-old babies were shown images of two different objects like the blue square and a yellow triangle shown below
On each trial, one of these objects was shown on a screen at the same time as a picture of a happy face, while the other was presented at the same time as an angry face. These object emotion pairings were shown over and over again until the the infants were bored of looking at them. Throughout this learning phase, we used an eye tracker to record where the babies were looking.
After the learning phase was completed, we showed the babies pictures of the two objects on the screen at the same time, and then gave them the opportunity to “tell” us which of the objects they like best by choosing one or the other.
Overall, we found that more babies chose the object that had been paired with happy faces than the object paired with angry faces, however, where babies were looking during learning predicted which object they would choose. Babies who looked more at the faces than at the objects were more likely to chose the object that was associated with the happy face, whereas babies who looked equally at the faces and object seemed to choose randomly.
We replicated this effect in a second study in which the same objects were paired with either pictures of the baby’s mother, or a picture of a stranger. Again, more babies picked the object that was paired with their mum than with a stranger and the amount of time they spent looking at the faces predicted which object they chose.
Our research show that infant’s preferences for objects may come about via simple associative learning processes. Infants come to like objects that are associated with positive affect (happy faces; pictures of their mum), however, this kind of learning depends on how much time infants spend looking at the source of that emotion (i.e. the face).
As for that rabbit, you probably smile at your baby as you lay them in their cot and hand them the rabbit at bed time. It’s possible that they like it because they have learned to associate it with you, their favourite person in the world.
It doesn't take much googling to work out that sleep is one of the biggest challenges for new parents. There is a huge market for products that claim to help babies sleep (noise devices, self-help books, baby wraps), however, according to some media coverage from a few years ago, research shows that it is best to let your baby "cry it out". Media headlines like "Let crying babes lie: Study supports notion of leaving infants to cry themselves back to sleep" and "Study shows 'crying it out' is best for babies" for some reason didn't sit right with me. I looked into it and found that this research was published in Developmental Psychology, which is a really reputable journal. But the journalist went a bit too far.
In the media coverage of the story, the journalists report that at 6 months, two thirds of infants slept through the night . Those that didn't, however, the transitional sleepers, were more likely to be boys, their mothers were more likely to describe their temperament as difficult, they were more likely to be breastfed (this didn't sit well with breastfeeding advocates) and their mothers were more likely to be depressed. The author Marsha Weinraub from Temple University is quoted as suggesting that ...
"The best advice is to put infants to bed at a regular time every night, allow them to fall asleep on their own and resist the urge to respond right away to awakenings."
Is this the take home message from the research? Or is this what Dr Weinraub responded when the journalists bullied her into telling them some advice for parents? I can just hear it now...
"So Dr Weinraub, what does your research suggest parents should do about their baby who wakes in the night?"
The title of the original article gives it away.
Weinraub et al., (2012). Patterns of Developmental Change in Infants' Nighttime Sleep Awakenings from 6 through 36 months of age. Developmental Psychology, 48, 1511-28
I don't even have to read the methodology to know that this research has nothing to do with the pros or cons of controlled crying. It is obviously a descriptive developmental study about age-related changes in sleep behaviour across infancy, not about parenting or sleep training. There is nothing in this article that suggests leaving infants to cry themselves back to sleep is either good or bad. This is a case of a quote from the author being used to mislead readers about the true nature of a research finding and is an example of terrible science journalism.
So what does this study tell us about infant sleep development?
In a large longitudinal study, parents were questioned about their infants' sleep behaviour when the babies were 6 months, 15 months, 24 months and 36 months of age. In addition, measures of attachment, temperament, breastfeeding, maternal depression, maternal sensitivity, father presence, illnesses, family size, poverty, childcare, maternal education, and martial conflict were taken.
Models of developmental change in sleep behaviour identified two groups of infants; SLEEPERS were those who slept through the night from 6 months and whose sleep behaviour was didn't change across development. These children represented 66% of the group. In contrast, the TRANSITIONAL SLEEPERS were those children who woke several times during the night at 6 months, however, their night waking improved with age, such that by 18 months their sleeping did not differ from the SLEEPERS group. Those in the TRANSITIONAL group were more likely to be boys, breastfed at 6 and 15 months, and had more difficult temperaments. Mums of transitional sleepers were also more likely to be depressed and have partners with poor health. Children were more likely to come from large families and spent less time in day care at 9 months.
The authors concluded that there are two distinct developmental profiles in sleep development but note that it is unclear what the implications of these patterns of change are. Given that the transitional group do not differ from the sleeper group at 18 months, these findings may be absolutely inconsequential. All children learn to sleep through the night eventually, and it is possible that the length of time that it takes them to do so doesn't make a difference. Alternatively, it may be that sleep in transitional children may continue to differ qualitatively. For example, the effects of anxiety-producing events on children's ability to sleep may differ during childhood. I think that this is an interesting empirical question.
The issue of breastfeeding is one that the authors do speculate on in the discussion. While they suggest that breastfed infants were more likely to wake in the night past 6 months of age, they acknowledge that their data does not speak to whether that was because of hunger or because of breastfeeding interfering with learning to self soothe.
I think this is a really interesting descriptive study and it is a pity that was butchered by the media. I was surprised that as many as 67% of infants were waking one night per week at 6 months and wonder whether parent report is the most accurate way to measure this. Perhaps actigraphy would be useful in getting an objective measure of age-related changes in sleep behaviour. Letting your baby cry it out is one way of teaching them to sleep through the night, however, this particular piece if research certainly does not speak to whether this is a good or bad thing to do.
The Early Learning Project at UNSW is starting a blog! My students and I want to share our take on developmental science with you. The blog will be a mixture of us telling you about research is going on in our lab, telling you about cool research that is coming out of other labs, and keeping science journalists in check by telling you about developmental science that gets a lot of media attention, but is perhaps misinterpreted.
We decided to call our blog "Blooming Buzzing Confusion" out of respect for the father of psychology, William James. James is famous for a lot of things but one of his most quoted writings is his suggestion that infants' impression of the world is "one great blooming, buzzing confusion" (Principles of Psychology 1890). This idea of the overwhelmed infant, who had little capacity to make sense of the world around them prevailed for much of the 20th century but in recent times there has been somewhat of a shift in how we think about the cognitive capacities of young infants.
Changes in methodology, particularly the development of habituation/dishabituation paradigms which rely on infant looking times, have opened up the range of cognitive capacities and social understanding that can be tested in young infants and have revealed remarkably sophisticated capacities... or have they.
In the last 10 years, researchers have published data suggesting that infants can count, are capable of moral reasoning, have theory of mind, and can make social evaluations of others behaviour. These conclusions largely come from studies in which infants look for longer at events that the researchers expect to be surprising to them (i.e. 1+ 1= 1), if they have an understanding of numerosity, for example. The problem is that many of these violation of expectation effects can be more parsimoniously explained with reference to simple perceptual phenomenon or associative learning.
The field of developmental psychology is currently wrestling with whether infants are born with remarkable capacities to understand the world or whether, like James said many years ago, it is all a blooming, buzzing, confusion. In all likelihood, it is a bit of both. There is no doubt that infants are born with remarkable capacities to learn about how the world works, and my students and I are excited to share the latest discoveries with you.
I am the Director of the Early Learning Project at UNSW. My research interests focus on learning, memory and emotion understanding development in infancy and early childhood
I am currently studying for my undergraduate Psychology degree at Cardiff University in the UK. I am working as a Research Assistant in the Early Learning Project as part of our placement program this year.
I have just finished my thesis for my honuors degree. My research focused on future thinking ability in preschoolers.