How Babies Work
Emergent Thinking About Emergent Humans

May 9 2013 11:12 AM

Goodbye From How Babies Work!

Today is the final day of How Babies Work. If this is too much for you to bear, I recommend extended skin-to-skin contact, plus a pacifier dipped in sucrose. It should kill the pain.

The blog was a limited event, timed to my new book Baby Meets World. So this is where I say: If you liked How Babies Work, or even just “liked” it, you’ll love Baby Meets World. If you vaguely tolerated it, you will also love it. If you were enraged by it and left angry comments below, I recommend you buy a copy and destroy it in ceremonial fashion. It will make you feel great. Destroying two will make you feel twice as great.


The book is not a rerun. How Babies Work was almost all material from the cutting room floor: There are glimpses of the book here and there, but just glimpses. (Fine: The Turkish hand-walkers are in the book. Did you think I was going to leave them out?) After I finished the book, I got down on my hands and knees and realized there was enough on the floor to fill up a blog.

Babies are like that: There’s so much going on in infancy that no one can cover all of it. (The lie of the baby manuals, of course, is that they claim to. In reality, they tell you just enough about everything so that you know not nearly enough about any particular thing.) And the babies are only half of it: It’s the parents—the things we have done, the ways we have freaked out—who are the rest of the story. We grown-ups are wondrous creatures too. We’re just as bewildering as the babies, even though we can speak.

Thanks for joining me here. And if you have thoughts about the book, please be in touch. If I don’t answer, it’s only because I can’t hear you over the screaming.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

May 8 2013 12:43 PM

Stop Telling Your Toddler to Share!

Toddlers are impossible. Everyone knows this. They are selfish and solipsistic. They are awful until they turn 2, at which point they become terrible. They have big heads. Literally. A roomful of toddlers is like The Lord of Flies, but with a shorter running time.

Everyone knows this. But everyone is wrong. And in the final week of How Babies Work, it seems fitting to look beyond infancy—to look at what changes when babies become toddlers. Among the most notable changes is that they begin to help, to cooperate, to share—they exhibit what psychologists call prosocial behavior. In recent years there’s been a rush of research on the development of prosocial behavior and it suggests that toddlers have a serious publicity problem. In study after study, they act not as the spawn of the devil but as good Samaritans.


When the situation is clear enough—when it isn’t a scrum in the sandbox—toddlers are often charitable and deeply generous. They willingly work together with adults on new tasks. They voluntarily help out when an adult drops or is missing something. They share food; sometimes they even share toys. They respond empathetically to someone in distress.

If you have a toddler, such descriptions may make you despair. Your toddler doesn’t act like this, no matter how much you tell him to share! So stop telling him to share. And you might notice that your little monster is already helping out in his own way.

This prosocial orientation is fundamental to what makes us human. “No matter how much you try to socialize your cat to be prosocial, it is just not going to happen,” says Celia Brownell, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “The nicest, smartest cat in the world is never going to do that.”

But being prepared to become prosocial is not the same thing as being prosocial. At a year of age, babies are socially intrigued by other babies. “They smile at each other, they pat each other on the head,” Brownell says. “But they also often crawl over each other, knock each other down, and if you put them all in a room, they’re like ships passing in the night.” They act not unlike cats. Being prepared isn’t enough.

“Whatever it is that’s prepared is prepared to develop within this cradle of rich, social engagement,” says Brownell. Her work focuses not on the innate origins of prosocial behavior—what we get for free—but on how it develops through daily social experience: “The baby is embedded, enmeshed, in this incredibly rich, active social world. We just ramp that up over the course of infancy.”

A wonderful study out of Brownell’s lab shows how toddlers, over the course of the second year, slowly climb up this scaffolding that adults provide. In the experiment, an adult provided a toddler with cues—verbal, facial, postural—that were increasingly explicit about the problem: The adult was freezing. At the subtlest level, the adult said “brrrr” while shivering; at the most explicit level, the adult flat-out asked for a blanket.

“Our thinking was that if children are being socialized and coming into the notion of caring about others, they may differ primarily in how much information they need to implement a prosocial response,” Brownell says. And they did: The 18-month-olds wouldn’t act until the adult had gotten to the sixth of eight levels—mentioning the blanket and asking for help (but not yet asking for the blanket). Only at that point could the toddlers connect the dots. The 30-month-olds helped far earlier, often after the adult said, “I’m cold” (the second level).

This is strikingly different from how precocious very young toddlers are at helping adults complete tasks—picking up an object an experimenter drops, for example. Indeed, in a separate part of Brownell’s study children of all ages helped much earlier at this goal-directed helping, known as instrumental helping. This sort of helping is about visual cues, not inner states, and a 1-year-old can recognize these cues. (I wrote about how children begin to understand the idea of goals here.) But that 1-year-old simply isn’t able to infer an inner state. In order to help empathically, she needs to be told what someone is feeling. A year later, though, she’s learned to figure this out on her own.

This perspective undermines a lot of assumptions about how children learn proper social behavior. As parents, we tend to think that children have to be actively taught how to share, or how to be cooperative. At any crowded sandbox there is a nervous background hum of parental correctives and directives. It can feel as if, without this paternalistic nudging, the children would break into marauding bands, and the morning would end with Milo head down in the sand volcano and his stroller raided for its suckable fruit snacks.

What the work of Brownell and other prosocial researchers suggests is that children already understand a lot about prosocial behavior after a couple of years in the world. We think we’re teaching our children to help and share, but we don’t know what our children already know. We’re embarrassingly out of it. We’re like the parent who sits his teenager down for a talk about drugs—but doesn’t realize that his kid is stoned.

This is at odds with how parents think about toddlers in part because we parents are obsessed with sharing. It’s true that toddlers are not especially altruistic. They don’t want to give up their toy to another kid in the sandbox. But adults don’t like to give up their toys either. And when the task is less monumental—when cooperation or assistance is required, rather than sacrifice—toddlers are far more willing to help. Altruism is the most demanding sort of prosocial behavior. When we scold toddlers for not sharing their toys, and then think of them as antisocial monsters, we’re grading them as harshly as possibly.

Besides, a toddler may not even be able to tell what another toddler wants. Young toddlers often need help in order to help, as Brownell’s work shows, and they don’t get it from other toddlers. As Brownell has written, “Peers may be a bit of a mystery, their intentions inscrutable, their behavior often uninterpretable.” When she studied cooperation among toddlers, she says, “it was clear that very young kids couldn’t manage a simple cooperation task that was within all of their motor and cognitive abilities—when they had to do it with another kid. They just didn’t get it.” But adults do get it and they help toddlers get it. That’s partly why toddlers act differently in the lab than they do in the sandbox.

Toddlers pick up prosocial behavior from the stray moments of everyday life. And once you look for it, you can see cooperation is embedded everywhere. Playing peek-a-boo and rolling a ball back and forth are cooperative acts. So is encouraging your child to “help” in the kitchen, to feed the dog, to sweep the floor. “These are all forms of helping that are absolutely part of everyday interaction that we just don’t think about—and if we thought about it, it would probably be a bad thing, like thinking too hard about your tennis game,” Brownell says. “It falls apart.”

Having your child sweep the floor doesn’t actually help the floor. But it helps him: It introduces the concept of helping, and it may prompt him to reflect the relationship between his actions and the needs of others. It’s this crucial “self-other” understanding that is the foundation of autonomous prosocial behavior, Brownell argues. (Simply telling him what to do seems to be counterproductive, in fact.)

You see this foundation being laid in another study from her lab, in which parents and toddlers read picture books together and talked about the emotions of the characters. When the parents simply labeled and explained the emotions, there was no effect. But when parents elicited the participation of the toddlers—when the toddlers were encouraged to puzzle out the emotions on their own—they were more prosocial.  Even the younger toddlers went on to help and share more.

In other words, before a toddler can bring you a blanket, he has to understand that you are a different person with different emotions, and that what you want and need may be, bizarrely, different from what he wants and needs. What you can see over the course of toddlerhood, and what you yourself unwittingly help with, is him coming into this new knowledge. It’s no small thing. I’m still working on it myself.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

May 7 2013 11:24 AM

The One Thing Standing in the Way of Your Baby Walking

So let’s say you’re a baby. You really want to walk, but walking turns out to be hard—stunningly hard. And then it hits you: This would be a lot easier if your parents hadn’t stuffed this big heavy bag of warm pee between your legs. Is this some sort of practical joke?

Most of development is invisible: You can’t see a theory of mind take shape. But when a child moves, the magic is all on display. And if you watch closely enough, you can see how the rabbit gets pulled from the hat—how an infant learns to walk even while carrying his waste around with him.


For a long time, no one would have described motor development as magical. It’s a subject that was once thought to be dull and obvious. The psychologist Arnold Gesell proposed that motor development happens in lock step with neural development, and that theory held sway for decades.

But motor development turns out to be a highly variable and creative process. Dull and obvious are exactly the wrong words for it. Instead, babies learn to move in a wondrous array of ways. In Baby Meets World, I discuss the wonderful work of Karen Adolph, a psychologist at New York University who studies motor development. Adolph’s laboratory offers an extraordinary vantage point for seeing just how infants move. To see how they adapt to new obstacles, she’s devised highly colorful experiments—lead-weighted shoulder packs, walkways that turn into foam pits, Teflon-soled shoes. Reading her work, as I write in the book, you imagine her laboratory looking like the set of a Nickelodeon after-school special.

Adolph’s studies shed light on what new parents see everyday—the nearly Sisyphean task of learning to walk. (Stand up, stumble, stand up again, stumble again.) And Sisyphus had it easy: He never had to wear a diaper.

A just-out experiment from Adolph’s lab tracked how babies walked while wearing cloth or disposable diapers and while naked. Carrying your pee around is not a good strategy. While in diapers, babies take shorter, wider steps. They are three times more likely to stumble or fall. Their gait is far clumsier. (This is true for both kinds of diapers, but especially true for the “old-fashioned, thick” cloth diaper.) But once they took off their diapers, their walking was immediately more skillful. Without a diaper, their stride was, almost instantly, much more mature—sometimes years more mature.

In other words, once freed from the albatross of that bag of pee, babies walk less like babies. This is interesting on a couple of levels: First, babies learn with astonishing speed—without a diaper, they immediately recognized that they could walk more efficiently, even though many of them had never done it before. Second, what we think is cute about babies walking—and babies walking is pretty much the pinnacle of cuteness—may not have that much to do with the baby. You’d walk funny in diapers too.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

May 2 2013 10:48 AM

Meet the Family That Never Learned to Walk on Two Legs

I’m bipedal! You’re also bipedal. Who isn’t bipedal, really? No one brags about getting around on two legs. No one uses it as a pickup line (I presume). In our human-ruled world, bipedalism is so ubiquitous that we barely notice it, much less marvel at it.

But maybe we should.


In the herky-jerky world of infant locomotion, there’s a type of crawling that has long stood out for its unlikely grace and speed: bear crawling. It sounds ridiculous—hands and feet on the ground, knees and back off it—but it turns out to be strangely efficient. Toddlers who hit upon this style early on often stick with it for months or years, even after they learn to walk.

The bear crawl somehow seems to be heritable, too. It runs in families. The early anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička was so fascinated by the phenomenon that he published a book on itChildren Who Run on All Fours: And Other Animal-Like Behaviors in the Human Child—back in 1931, consisting mostly of correspondence with the parents of bear walkers. “I am so glad my six ‘monkeys’ are of interest to you, for I always insisted that it was interesting for a whole family to run about like that,” wrote a mother from Tennessee. A man from Chapel Hill wrote in about his nephew, who could walk perfectly well but loved to trot on all fours and “would cover ground at a rate somewhat faster than a man would ordinarily walk; he never seemed to tire.”

The accounts were not always strictly on topic—“As an interesting incident may be mentioned that once in running on all fours he picked up an apple with his teeth. Sincerely, Chester L and Mrs. Fordney”—but Hrdlička dutifully tabulated them, reprinted a few photographs of the bear crawl in the wild, and essayed a few conclusions. The basic cause, he wrote, “is apparently of atavistic nature, the whole phenomenon being thus one of the order of functional reminiscences of an ancestral condition.” Which means, basically: These children are acting like the apes their ancestors once were.

The subject of bear crawling hibernated for many decades until a couple of Turkish doctors, in 2004, made a discovery that was more science fiction than science. In a rural village, they happened upon a group of siblings who had never stood up. Members of a family with 19 children, all of whom bear-walked in their infancy, these five brothers and sisters had never lifted up off their hands. They had walked like bears all their life. The siblings actually wrist-walked, with their palms pressed flat against the ground. (Think of someone doing the downward-facing dog yoga pose while walking.) No one had ever seen an adult human move like this before.

The siblings were able to stand upright if they really concentrated on it, an early report on them noted, “but they become unsteady if they try to walk bipedally, and soon go down onto their hands.” They were quadrupeds. To help support the family, the lone male bear crawler ranged as far as a mile from home collecting cans and bottles. While bear-crawling, he was indefatigable. “This contrasts markedly with normal adult humans,” the report noted, “who find such a gait—if and when they try it—tiring and uncomfortable even after practice.”

The siblings all had a poorly developed cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls for balance, but some humans with no cerebellum still walk. (One of their brothers had the same poorly developed cerebellum but still walked.) So why did these siblings never stand up? Hrdlička presumably would have argued that they were reverting to “an atavistic nature,” and the Turkish scientists did too: They contended that the siblings were a case of “reverse evolution,” a missing link to our quadruped past.

There’s a less outlandish explanation, though. The bear crawl was efficient enough that if the siblings had floundered at walking early on, and they likely did, they might have just given up on walking. They lived in a rural village and kept to their own family. Their parents had accepted the children as they were; they’d never tried to teach them to walk. In this very proscribed world, walking on hands and feet made nearly as much sense as walking upright. They had created their own culture. And in fact the Turkish siblings were always capable of walking: After their story made the news, they received motor therapy. They soon became bipedal. (They also became the subject of a documentary: It is worth watching just to see adult humans move in this way.)

A perfectly healthy child will always, eventually, be bipedal. But there are many children with serious neural impairments, and the story of the Turkish siblings suggests that if these children were left alone, at least some might not find their way to their feet. Without social pressure and parental encouragement—just one more step, honey, one more step—the Turkish siblings might not be nearly as weird as they seem. Indeed, only a couple of years after the siblings were found, they were no longer complete anomalies: A family with three quadrupedal brothers had been discovered in Iraq, followed by another Turkish family and a couple of families in South America.

Bipedalism is fundamental to what made humans human. In the fossil record, it shows up millions of years before tool use or the explosion in brain size. As much as any other characteristic, walking is what shaped us into human beings. But we can still discard it. It can be our most profound inheritance and still be more flexible, less hard-wired than we assume. As the psychologist Esther Thelen argued, walking isn’t built-in, locked away in some inviolable part of ourselves and our genome. It’s discovered anew by every infant. And development, despite its constraints, despite its usual predictability, is a creative, highly sensitive process: It still has, in some isolated corners of the world, the capacity to surprise us.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, from which part of this post was taken, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

May 1 2013 4:02 PM

The Real Reason Your Kid Won’t Listen To You? Your Western Parenting Style.

For the modern overworked parent, a child’s independence is a double-edged sword. My preschooler can play happily in his room during rest time because he’s independent. And I, in my harried, half-time househusband capacity, am deeply grateful for this. But his room looks like a disaster after he plays in it—possibly because he’s independent. I’m less grateful for this.

I have incompatible desires. I didn’t realize they were incompatible until I read the work of the German psychologist Heidi Keller. Yesterday I discussed her research on how early parenting styles affect the speed of self-recognition. She’s also conducted experiments on how these styles of interaction affect self-regulation—specifically, how children comply with the expectations of others. Have they internalized the rule that toys having to be put away after rest time? (Just for example!) Or do they need to be constantly reminded of it—if they pay any attention to it at all? Are they capable of delaying gratification?


You can’t test for this in infancy. Self-regulation develops slowly—it simply doesn’t exist at 6 months or even a year. So Keller tested toddlers, around a year and a half of age. They were from very different societies—urban Greek, urban Costa Rican, rural Cameroonian Nso—each of which had a very different parenting style. The Greeks represented the typical Western style of dyadic, eye-to-eye interaction, with lots of object stimulation. (The baby plays with toys as much as people.) The Nso represented a more communal style of engagement, with lots of skin-to-skin contact but less eye-to-eye contact. The Costa Ricans were somewhere in between. The mirror self-recognition that Keller had documented with Nso and German children held up: The Greek toddlers recognized themselves at the youngest age, followed by the Costa Rican children and finally the Nso.

But then the toddlers were tested on their self-regulation capacity, not their self-recognition capacity. And here the results were very different. Each toddler was graded on how they responded to maternal requests (bring me this, put this away) and whether they could comply with a prohibition from the experimenter (the toddlers were given a treat in a clear container—but asked not to eat it until the experimenter, who’d left the room after giving it, returned).

The Nso, who’d been so slow to see themselves in the mirror, were far more successful here. Without being reminded, they complied with each task. The Costa Ricans were a bit worse at both tasks. The Greek children were far worse.

These results correlate precisely with parenting styles, Keller argues. The Greek, or Western, parenting style emphasizes autonomy; the Nso emphasizes interdependence. Implicitly, the Greek children had been taught since infancy that they were free agents in the world—and so naturally, when they were given orders, they weren’t very good at following them. (You talking to me?) The Nso, on the other hand, had been taught since infancy that they, effectively, weren’t free agents. Instead, they were part of a collective culture—and so naturally, when they were given orders, they were able to follow them far more easily. Following orders made intuitive sense.

Few things are quite this clear-cut, as Keller herself would say—the line between independence and interdependence is shaded, not bright. But different cultural parenting styles, even very early in infancy, do seem to be predictive of later behavior. That’s even though the cultural values embedded in these styles are never explicit. They’re never articulated. They don’t have to be. It’s all there in the way they, and we, hold and gaze at and play with our babies.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, from which part of this post was taken, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

April 30 2013 10:00 AM

Western Parents Love Face-to-Face Interaction. But That’s Not the Only Way.

Face-to-face interaction is the foundation of modern Western parenting. It is how we explain what it means to be human—this is how we show emotion, this is how we communicate, this is how we make funny flatulence sounds. We think of this sort of dyadic interaction as what parenting is. It’s hard to imagine a baby raised without this sort of back-and-forth and turning out fine.

But many babies elsewhere are raised without it—and they do indeed turn out just fine. But there are many different versions of fine.


The German psychologist Heidi Keller once ran a brilliant experiment in which she showed German mothers and Cameroonian Nso mothers footage of the parenting style of the other. Both were deeply unimpressed. (Sample reaction: “The Nso even suspected that it may be forbidden in Germany for mothers to hold babies close to their bodies.”) The German mothers had the most difficulty comprehending the lack of face-to-face exchanges among the Nso. It just didn’t make sense to them.

From a very early age, Nso babies are engaged in the social life of the community. They are carried facing outward. They see everything but their mother. Their world is broader than the dyadic world the German babies—and mine—inhabit. (My baby, on the other hand, knows way more about funny flatulence sounds.) These parenting styles don’t cleave along developed–undeveloped lines. They have deeper cultural roots. Middle-class American mothers, for example, spend twice as much time face-to-face with their babies as middle-class Japanese mothers.

It’s not just what the babies see. It’s what they hear, too. A study comparing native French mothers with West African mothers living in France found that less than 10 percent of what the French mothers said to their babies was a reference to someone else—someone who wasn’t the mother or the baby. But some 40 percent of what the West African mothers said referred to someone else. The French mothers were preparing their infants for a culture in which social life is conducted one-on-one. The West African mothers were preparing theirs for a society of communal engagement. Their childrearing stresses the significance of the community, not the mother—or the baby.

You can see the imprint of these different styles as early as toddlerhood. Mirror self-recognition is a primitive measure of self-awareness, and at around a year-and-a-half, German toddlers were far more likely than Nso toddlers to recognize themselves in the mirror. After months of eye-to-eye contact, in which their parents had responded to their every action, the German toddlers had caught on to the idea of their own selfhood sooner: They knew they were actors in the world. In a culture that prizes independence, they’d become independent.

But the independent child is less likely to pick up his room. More on that, and how very different styles of early interaction foster very different levels of compliance, tomorrow.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, from which part of this post was taken, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

April 25 2013 3:19 PM

How Babies Learn to Be Human

It is hard to imagine being a baby, and not just because it is hard to imagine not knowing what you already know. That’s the easy part. It is far harder to imagine not knowing what you do not know you already know.

A sentence that Rumsfeldian cries out for a hypothetical: Let’s say you are in line at Starbucks and the barista puts a cup of coffee on the counter. As an adult, you understand that action as: That person put a cup of coffee on the counter for a customer. As a baby, or at least a newborn, you perceive it as: That person extended his arm through space while holding an object and then released the object.


In short, there was a moment in your life when you did not understand the idea of intentions. When a person acts, she has a goal in mind—she intends to do something. This is the insight that undergirds your understanding of almost everyone you see around you; it is the insight that makes sense of the social world. It’s how you know someone wants to shake your hand when he extends his toward you. But it turns out babies aren’t born with this insight. They have to acquire it—and until they do, the baristas at Starbucks make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

In recent years, developmental psychologists have begun to figure out how and when infants connect intention to action. (And other insights that are equally crucial: that what someone is paying attention to is a clue to their intentions; and that intentions belong to individuals—that not everyone is reaching out their arm because they are putting down some coffee.) The answers are fascinating: Infants learn about the social world at least in part by extrapolating from their own actions. In other words, if a baby was inadvisably hired at Starbucks and had the experience of putting a cup of coffee on the counter for a customer, she would be far more likely to understand what the other baristas were doing.

A lot of the most interesting work in this field has come out of the lab of Amanda Woodward, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who came to the subject after studying language development in graduate school. Her experience led her to wonder less about language and more about what happens before language. Her subjects already possessed an enormous amount of social intelligence. In learning words from her, they were clearly trying to divine her intentions: What was this strange graduate student trying to do? So Woodward decided to study how babies get to that point. What happens that enables that year-old infant to understand the idea of intentions?

After a mere half-year in the world, babies have figured out some version of how it works. In a visual habituation experiment—a key method in infancy research, which exploits the fact that infants look longer at events they perceive as novel—the 6-month-olds looked longer when a person reached for a different object but not when they reached in a different direction. They understood that the object, not the reaching itself, was what mattered most. But when the babies watched a mechanical claw reach for a different object, they failed to look longer. They expected humans to have goals; they had no such expectations for claws.  

How do they come to understand this? They mine it from their own experiences down there on the floor. The best example of this sort of learning comes from an experiment involving “sticky mittens,” Velcro-covered mittens that allow infants to pick up toys that are also Velcro-covered. (The fact that developmental psychologists sit around and think up experiments involving things called “sticky mittens” should really inspire a lot of people to go to graduate school.)

At three months, babies aren’t very good at reaching and they aren’t very good at understanding what other people are doing by reaching. But after they wear the “sticky mittens” and have the experience of picking up toys, they suddenly understand the point of reaching. In another visual habituation experiment, they now notice when the experimenter reaches for a new object—that is, when the experimenter has a new goal in mind. (The babies who watched the experiment first and then played with the mittens didn’t notice.) The longer a baby played with the mittens, the stronger the effect was. Just a few minutes of active experience altered how that infant comprehended the world. This appears to be true for more sophisticated actions, too. At 10 months, babies are good at reaching but they’re not very good at higher-level, means-ends actions. However, when infants this age learn to use a tool—in this experiment, using a cane to get a toy—they then understand what adults are intending to do when they use the tool. They focus on the ends (the toy), not simply the means (the cane).

It would make sense that babies, after discovering that people have these things called goals, start seeing goals everywhere they look. As Woodward says, “You might think that babies start with a kind of crude expectation—that anything a person does is probably goal-directed.” But, she continues, “that’s not the way it is.” When 7-month-old babies see an experimenter reach toward one of two objects, and then are given the opportunity to reach toward those same objects, they unsurprisingly choose the same object as the experimenter. But when the experimenter reaches more ambiguously—when she just touches the toy with the back of her hand, for example—the infants choose randomly between the toys. They don’t interpret her movement as having a goal. It’s a remarkably fine-grained understanding of actions.

And it is achieved in a remarkably short period of time. Woodward’s work highlights just how amazing infants are at learning: Their achievements never seem less than wondrous. And Woodward herself was expecting less. She’d done postdoctoral work with Elizabeth Spelke, who revolutionized infancy research with her theory of infant core knowledge—the idea that we are born with innate capacities that we get for free. “I assumed that this piece of social knowledge would look just like the rest of infant core knowledge, that it wouldn’t depend on experience,” Woodward says. “And so I was initially frustrated at why only older babies would pass my measures.” It turned out that before they could pass, they’d had to study up: They had spent their brief time in the world cramming.

The idea that babies can be smart and still need to study shouldn’t be surprising. But it is. “Bizarrely, in the history of the field, there’s been this conjunction of If learning is important, babies must not be smart, and If babies are smart, learning must not be important,” Woodward says. “It’s just a logical fallacy.” Babies have to be smart in order to learn what they do.

Innateness now dominates the popular understanding of infancy, and clearly infants have extraordinary inborn knowledge. As innumerable studies have now proved, babies can think in very sophisticated, abstract ways. But we don’t get everything for free. As a parent, I find this warp-speed learning even more marvelous than innateness. It’s wonderful to watch my infant son and know that he is multitasking: He is drooling and deciphering the foundations of human social life. He is learning things that I didn’t even know I knew. And this learning isn’t passive; it is very much active. You can watch as babies, almost literally, piece together the social world with their hands.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

April 24 2013 8:30 AM

Just Relax About Whether Your Baby Is Crawling

There are some myths about infancy that, like some infants, will never, ever go to sleep. No matter how many times they are put down, it’s just a matter of moments before, in some far forgotten corner of the Internet, they start wailing once again.

Among the most pernicious and persistent is the idea that crawling matters. If your baby does not crawl, this theory suggests, she will be damaged in some way. Hands-and-knees crawling knits together crucial neural connections.


It’s the sort of idea that seems like it should be true. After all, Americans are now a yoga-going, post-Cartesian people. The mind and the body are no longer seen as separate spheres. The theory that crawling helps shape the brain is intuitively correct.

Only intuitively, though.

The prominence of crawling in the modern parental mind can be traced to Arnold Gesell, the psychologist who established the first developmental stages a century ago. Gesell thought crawling was a fundamental part of motor development, and ever since he enshrined it in his developmental charts, it has never gone away. Today it is easy to find occupational therapists who tout the neural importance of crawling. And there are still physical therapies that simulate the cross-crawl, and thus “restructure” the brain, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics declaring the idea worthless.

But there is no scientific study that links not crawling to any negative outcomes. None. (Children with developmental problems are more likely not to crawl or to crawl asymmetrically. But children with developmental problems are more likely not to do lots of things. It isn’t not crawling that causes the problems.)

Even going back to scientific studies is unnecessary, though. The theory that crawling is crucial is deeply provincial. It overlooks history and culture. For centuries, American and European children grew up under heavy, bulky clothing that strangulated all movement. Even the lighter clothing babies wore was too long for a baby to get traction; they literally couldn’t crawl. Besides, before the Enlightenment, no parent wanted a child to crawl. Crawling was considered bestial, a godless act. Even today, there are cultures where crawling is considered too dirty and dangerous—infants who try to crawl are carried instead.

And of course, many children never bother to try. Every parent knows a child who skipped crawling and went straight to walking or only scooted instead. Studies confirm this. There are many of these children, and they do just fine. Therapists who stress the importance of crawling talk about how it promotes socio-emotional and muscular development, how it encourages independence, how it exposes infants to challenging new stimuli—all of which is crucial. That may be true. But there’s no evidence that crawling alone does that. Motor development unfolds along many paths, but a century after Gesell, the myth of that one true way persists.

And it will never go away. Since it can never really be disproved, it can never really be dismissed. And thus it may be safer to believe in it—just in case. As a therapist says in an article in Parenting magazine, “Though there's little scientific proof that crawling is important, there are plenty of experts who believe it is—so what's the harm in doing tummy time and letting nature take its course?”

Indeed! Why not be worried when you could be worried?


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, from which part of this post was taken, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

April 23 2013 9:14 AM

The U.S. Children’s Bureau: Parenting Advice From Uncle Sam

A century ago, an Orwellian plot to subjugate all American children to federal authority was set in motion. Government bureaucrats systemically undermined the influence and the sanctity of the family: They told parents the right way to raise their children. Children no longer belonged exclusively to their parents. Uncle Sam was moving in.

Or at least, that’s how it would be described today. At the time, they called this dystopian nightmare the U.S. Children’s Bureau, founded in 1912. And it was wildly popular.


In an era of high child mortality and chronically poor health, as well as rapidly changing norms for childrearing, the bureau was seen as a salvation. As if they’d been waiting for the bureau to be founded, parents across the country immediately inundated the Children’s Bureau with letters—at its high point, the bureau received 400,000 missives a year—and got personal responses back. Many of the letters, from mothers desperate for guidance and struggling to survive, are heartrending to read. “Some of the letters are handwritten, semi-literate, pencil letters from rural, black communities in Alabama—and then some are from Fifth Avenue,” says Janet Golden, a historian at Rutgers–Camden. “Sometimes you have wealthy people who write and say, ‘I took my baby to five different doctors but I want to know what the government thinks.’ ”

An illustration from the 1929 "Infant Care" handbook, published by the US Department of Labor's Children's Bureau.
1929 "Infant Care" handbook

Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Labor

The new scientific-minded childrearing wisdom of the era—the new right way to raise your child—was disseminated through the Bureau’s wildly popular pamphlet, Infant Care. Tens of millions of copies were distributed—but that actually underestimates its reach. Early baby books, where parents kept a record of their infants, were also filled with its official advice; the publishers simply cut and pasted parts of Infant Care into their books.

No one objected to all this federal oversight. On the contrary, in the 1910s and 20s, even before the modern welfare state, people not just felt invested in government programs—they thought the job of the government was to give advice. It’s a communal connection unimaginable today. “Now we have a very privatized world,” Golden says. “We don’t have a collective interest in our babies. It’s my baby.”

And how: Just recently, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry ignited a firestorm by saying that Americans need to have a more collective notion of our children. Perry was making what she thought was an anodyne comment. And it once would have been. But it isn’t anymore.

“Today a lot of people have a ‘don’t tell me how to live my life’ attitude toward the federal government,” Golden says. “And here we have an era where people are saying, ‘Please tell me how to raise my child.’ ”

This may be the most fundamental difference between the world for which the Children’s Bureau was founded and our own. Parents then and now are still obsessed with the same things: eating, sleeping, what to buy, how to survive this madness. The advice of the authorities about these things has changed—but then again, the advice was, and is, always changing. The far bigger change is where we look for that authority.


Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

April 17 2013 4:30 PM

The First Baby Blogs, Over 100 Years Ago

In 1914, a baby named Charlie Flood was born, and if you do not know his name, it is not because his infancy was uneventful: It is reported that, at the very least, some quicklime burned his face and a buttonhook snagged on his tongue.

How do we know these things a century later? From his baby blog. Wait—I mean, his baby book. A new accoutrement of parenthood, coming into existence just a few decades before Charlie Flood himself, baby books were where mothers—and they were almost always mothers—recorded the mundane, wondrous details of infancy. These books didn’t just prefigure the modern baby mania of the Internet, they also marked a significant moment: For likely the first time in history, it became common for a whole population to write down their random thoughts about their babies. The baby books, like baby blogs today, were a new genre that encouraged parents to pay more attention to every tiny detail of infancy.


“They are really early baby blogs,” says Janet Golden, a historian at Rutgers-Camden, who read the baby book of Charlie Flood and those of countless other babies in her research on the history of babies in modern America. Sometimes fancy bound volumes, often cheap, thin-papered pamphlets, baby books went mass market in America beginning in the 1910s, and only became more popular over the succeeding decades.

It’s not as if no one had taken notes on a baby before, of course. Some scientifically-minded parents (mostly fathers this time, including Darwin) kept detailed accounts. And the child study movement encouraged mothers, for the sake of scientific progress, to bloodlessly record every nervous twitch and bowel movement. But the parents who kept baby books were not doing research or refining the science of child care. They simply wanted to remember these wondrous beings in their midst.

Why did baby books appear around the turn of the 20th century? Well, partly because parents could finally count on their babies surviving. Sanitation improved, medicine got a (small) clue, and infant mortality rates dipped sharply. Not long before, many parents had set aside money in case they needed a postmortem baby picture. Now parents were taking photos of their very much alive babies with Kodak Brownie cameras. “It’s a sign that, yes, they expect the baby to live,” Golden says. And so expectations shifted. “People become very concerned with education and the future,” Golden says. Incredibly, there are advertisements about saving for college as early as the 1920s.

These advertisements are the other reason for the appearance of baby books. The books began as a way for the upper class to record gifts of gold jewelry and silk dresses. But they were quickly down-marketed: Businesses discovered that babies are a wonderful excuse for consumption, and they helpfully padded the pages of baby books with advertisements for all manner of things that that no baby should be without. The buy-baby-buy phenomenon of modern consumer culture is not actually modern. It worked back then, too. The cheap-to-print baby books demonstrate, Golden says, “just how remarkably effective manufacturers, advertisers, insurance companies are in getting their brand names out there. Even poor families give the brand names: the Borden’s milk, the Carnation milk. They go out and buy baby clothes, because they’re ‘hygienic’ and ‘sterilized.’ You really bring people into consumer culture.”

As you see parents learning to parrot the language of expertise, you can observe the origins of how we think about babies today. The earliest baby books were obsessed with metrics: A good mother was supposed to measure and weigh her child constantly. “Baby books have advertisements for renting baby scales,” Golden says. “Or people go into town and borrow the butter scale and put the baby on it.” It was only after World War II that parents paid less attention to raw numbers and more attention to when their children point for the first time. Guided by the advice of Arnold Gesell, and then Spock, they unconsciously began to think in developmental terms, like us.

And they slowly became more safety-conscious, more paranoid. “There are some wonderful accounts in those early baby books of babies having accidents and getting injured, which parents in the pre-war period find very amusing,” Golden says. (See, epically, Charlie Flood.) In the post-war era, those vanished. “I’m not convinced that babies stopped bumped their heads, or falling out of high chairs, but culturally you’ve learned that you don’t record that—that becomes evidence of abuse.” Physical discipline was once so prominent that baby books had headings for “My First Discipline.” In 1908, a mother wrote of her month-old infant: “Baby received some discipline this morning. She refused to go to sleep before breakfast and also refused to be good.” By the post-war period, these entries also vanished.

You can also see the origins of the contemporary germophobic parent in early baby books. Advertisers were happy to inform mothers of the new and improved products to make mothering safer, cleaner, more sanitary. Parents could buy bibs that read, “Don’t Kiss Me.” Kissing, needless to say, spread germs. 

Which is not to say that the mothers in these books trembled before the experts. The popular 1930 Book of Baby Mine informed parents that “all young infants are extremely nervous so avoid exciting them, playing with them, or handling them too much.” But many mothers nonetheless wrote about playing with their babies—in direct contradiction to the advice given in the book they were writing in. Their disobedience is heartening. The history of child rearing tends to be written by the experts, but the baby books record the gap between what was prescribed and how mothers actually mothered. They’re not unlike blogs today: They let the writer express her defiance. As Golden says, “People will say, well, they say you shouldn’t spank your child, but I spank my child; they say you shouldn’t co-sleep but I co-sleep. Everyone has this sense that, yes, there’s an orthodoxy but I’m doing something a little different.”

 They’re like blogs in another sense, too: They give us a record of the very first child. We know far less about the life of a second child; we know almost nothing about a third or fourth. Any parent today can identify with this problem; any iPhoto archive is evidence of it. As Golden says, “By the time the other ones come along, you just don’t have the energy. Rolling over just isn’t as exciting.”