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High IQ babies? What really works?

“Help your baby reach her potential,” . . . “Put your baby in front of his peers,”. . . “Create a baby genius,”. . . The claims are spread across the pages of parenting magazines and television screens alarming parents that all the other babies have already started the race.  But can we take these promises at face value?  Do these programs make enough of a difference to justify the cost?  The answer really depends on how far you look into the future.

Undeniably, baby’s brains are built to learn, and to learn quickly.  The rapid absorption of language sounds, the rhythms of music, and facts about the world “awaken” the brain to learning as it continues to build and shape neuron networks and grey matter.  Studies of children who have suffered brain injuries show the resiliency and learning potential of the brain, as major functions can be regained due to a quality called “plasticity.”  Plasticity is where groups of neurons meant for one particular function, let’s say for example moving small hands, can take on a new function such as smiling.  Add this quality to the brain  growth that still occurs after birth, and it gives babies just the right balance of flexibility and thinking power needed to reach those early developmental steps.

The important fact to remember about baby learning and IQ potential is that it is a holistic process during the early months.  Babies encode new information as whole experiences, much more than itemized lists or individual facts.  Think about your own early memories, and most likely you will recall the whole scene in which the experience took place, the emotions that you felt, and who else was there.  Your brain at that time was learning to encode a “scene” or a whole story of the event and to take in as much as possible.  In this way, baby thinking is a lot more like coloring in a picture than it is like building a tower with blocks.

Now back to baby I.Q..  What happens if we isolate and advance one area of learning in particular in a baby’s brain, say, learning the answers to simple math facts?  The good news is that babies will see the pattern of facts, learn the right answers to the problems, and amaze aunts and uncles at the next holiday dinner.  The more realistic news is that this skill is a demonstration of learning, not I.Q., and with the further we look into the coming years the less likely this early “leap” will translate into a meaningful advancement in comparison with other children.  Learning an academic skill while still in the first couple of years of life does not translate into a guaranteed position ahead of the pack in that skill.

So, with a more realistic attitude in mind, we can “call the 1-(800) number on the screen,” as long as we recognize that we are paying for learned skills, not  I.Q. points.  Probably the most important factors to consider in spending this type of memorization and learning time with your child is 1) whether or not this is an enjoyable parent-child experience, and 2) if it doesn’t take away from the other important enrichment activities that babies should be doing during the months before preschool or kindergarten starts.  There’s only so much time in the day and only so much money in the budget for baby’s early learning, so don’t forget the crucial importance of coloring, laughing with other babies, and other general life experiences that help babies feel they are in a world of discovery.

For more information please see this list of books on Child Developmentas well as articles in our Child Development section.  Baby toys that stimulate development especially those that the baby can use to play and explore on their own but can also be used for interactive play with parents are best.