Babies could understand our gestures from as young as two months of age, researchers believe, turning mainstream theory on its head and meaning that parents should spend more time engaging with their newborns.
Mainstream theory holds that children become self-aware at some point between 15 and 24 months old, when they are able to show that they recognise themselves in a mirror, and become aware of others as individuals with their own minds around the same age or a bit later.
However, both awareness of others and self-awareness could come much earlier, according to researchers on the EU-funded TESIS project, which is looking at the role of actions and objects in infant understanding.
It means that if babies can see what other people think and feel then parents need to really talk to their kids, even when they are tiny babies.
‘Parents should go ahead and take their newborns seriously as alert, responsive and socially intelligent people,’ said Professor Vasu Reddy, a psychologist from the University of Portsmouth, in the UK, who is participating in the project. ‘The awareness of others’ minds is something that arises first in direct engagement (when other people directly address babies), in very early infancy.’
The researchers have demonstrated that babies perceive a lot more than people think. They’ve shown, for example, that even at two months old a baby knows it is about to be picked up and stiffens its body in anticipation.
‘They are picking up your intentions from the actions you are doing towards them,’ said Prof. Reddy. ‘They understand the significance of your smile and your attention in a limited way, and you can tell this from their emotional reactions to you, such as in feeling shy or coy when you greet them as early as at two months of age.’
Parents frequently believe that they can communicate with their babies, even when they are really small, but they’re often told that they must be imagining things.
However, Prof. Reddy believes that they may be correct after all. ‘Actually, sometimes it’s true, and what this research is showing, it is in a way trying to empower parents’ observations and trying to give them the courage to take their perceptions seriously.’It’s all based on the idea that interaction plays an important role in helping children to learn and develop, even when they are tiny babies. Prof. Reddy underlines, for example, the importance of addressing a baby directly, rather than talking about them in the third person.
‘It’s this kind of emotional engagement which allows the infant to flourish and develop, doors will open that wouldn’t open if there wasn’t this kind of engagement,’ she said.
Angelique Eydam, a psychologist working on the project who is looking specifically at learning, said that interaction is critical to the way young children pick things up.
‘Learning happens together with other people and it develops, it’s not this very one-sided A teaches, B learns, but both kind of learn together,’ she said.
More than the sum of its parts
Researchers on the TESIS project, which ends in 2015, believe that the power of interaction lies in the fact that it is more than just the sum of its parts. They say that you can see the power of interaction because babies show a greater interest in things brought to them by their parents such as books or specific toys, and parents can use this fact to engage with their children more.
Zuzanna Rucinska, a philosophy researcher on the project, said that such an interaction can help toddlers to be more creative in the way they play.
‘Interacting with others and hearing different stories insofar as they (the interactions) portray unusual and alternative behaviours can expand on accepted norms and increase possibilities of play,’ she said. ‘All of that really shapes the individual’s cognitive capacities such as imagination.’
For parents, this all means that the best way to teach your infant or toddler is to take the time to play with them, even when they are tiny babies. Prof. Reddy believes that society would be better if people did this more often.