When It Comes to Learning, Babies Found to Hit the Ground Running
This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.
And I'm Faith Lapidus. On our program this week, we discuss recent findings about how intelligence develops in babies.
Not long ago, many people believed that babies only wanted food and to be kept warm and dry. Some people thought babies were not able to learn things until they were five or six months old.
Yet doctors in the United States say babies begin learning on their first day of life. The National Institute of Child Health and Development is a federal government agency. Its goal is to indentify which experiences can influence healthy development in human beings.
Research scientists at the institute note that babies are strongly influenced by their environment. They say a baby will smile if her mother does something the baby likes. A baby learns to get the best care possible by smiling to please her mother or other caregiver. This is how babies learn to connect and communicate with other humans.
The American researchers say this ability to learn exists in a baby even before birth. They say newborn babies can recognize and understand sounds they heard while they were still developing inside their mothers.
One study shows that babies can learn before they are born. The researchers placed a tape recorder on the stomach of a pregnant woman. Then, they played a recording of a short story.
On the day the baby was born, the researchers tested to find out if he knew the sounds of the story repeated while inside his mother. They did this by placing a device in the mouth of the newborn baby.
The baby would hear the story if he moved his mouth one way. If the baby moved his mouth the other way, he would hear a different story. The researchers say the baby clearly liked the story he heard before he was born. They say the baby would move his mouth so he could hear the story again and again.
Many experts say the first years of a child's life are important for all later development. An American study shows how mothers can strongly influence social development and language skills in their children.
The study involved more than one thousand two-hundred mothers and children. Researchers studied the children from the age of one month to three years. They observed the mothers playing with their children four times during this period.
The researchers attempted to measure the sensitivity of the mothers. The women were considered sensitive if they supported their children's activities and did not interfere unnecessarily. They tested the children for thinking and language development when they were three years old. Also, the researchers observed the women for signs of depression.
The children of depressed women did not do as well on tests as the children of women who did not suffer from depression. The children of depressed women did poorly on tests of language skills and understanding what they hear.
These children also were less cooperative and had more problems dealing with other people. The researchers noted that the sensitivity of the mothers was important to the general health of their children. Children did better when their mothers were caring, even when the women suffered from depression.
Another study suggests that low-birth weight babies with no evidence of disability may be more likely than other children to have physical and mental problems. The study results were published last October in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
American researchers studied nearly five hundred boys and girls. They were born in, or admitted to, one of three hospitals in New Jersey between nineteen eighty-four and nineteen eighty-seven. At birth, each child weighed less than two thousand grams.
The boys and girls had an average age of sixteen years at the time of the study. They were asked to complete intelligence and motor skill tests in their homes. Their test results were compared with those of other children their age.
The study found that the young people with low birth weight often had more problems with motor skills than others. A motor skill is a skill that requires a living thing to use its skeletal muscles effectively. Motor problems were more common among males, those with injured nerve tissue in the brain, and those who had been connected to oxygen supplies for days as a baby.
The most intensive period of language and speech development is during the first three years of a child's life. This is the time when the brain is developing. Language and communication skills are believed to develop best in an environment that is rich with sounds and sights. Also, the child should repeatedly hear the speech and language of other people.
America's National Institutes of Health says evidence suggests there are important periods of speech and language development in children. This means the brain is best able to learn a language during this period. Officials say the ability to learn a language will be more difficult if these periods pass without early contact with a language.
The first signs of communication happen during the first few days of life when a baby learns that crying will bring food and attention. Research shows that most children recognize the general sounds of their native language by six months of age. At that time, a baby also usually begins to make sounds. These sounds become a kind of nonsense speech over time.
By the end of the first year, most children are able to say a few simple words. But they may not understand the meaning of their words. By eighteen months of age, most children can say eight to ten words. By two years, most children are able to form simple statements, or sentences. By ages three, four and five, the number of words a child can understand quickly increases. It is at this age that children begin to understand the rules of language.
A long-term American study shows the importance of early education for poor children. The study is known as the Abecedarian Project. It involved more than one-hundred young children from poor families in North Carolina.
Half of the children attended an all-day program at a high-quality childcare center. The center offered educational, health and social programs. Children took part in games and activities to increase their thinking and language skills and social and emotional development. The program also included health foods for the children.
The children attended the program from when they were a few weeks old until the age of five years. The other group of children did not attend the childcare center. After the age of five, both groups attended public school.
Researchers compared the two groups of children. When they were babies, both groups had similar results in tests for mental and physical skills. However, from the age of eighteen months, the children in the educational child care program did much better in tests.
The researchers tested the children again when they were twelve and fifteen years old. The tests found that the children who had been in the childcare center continued to have higher average test results. These children did much better on tests of reading and mathematics.
A few years ago, organizers of the Abecedarian Project tested the students again. At the time, each student was twenty-one years old. They were tested for thinking and educational ability, employment, parenting and social skills.
The researchers found that the young adults who had the early education still did better in reading and mathematics tests. They were more than two times as likely to be attending college or to have completed college.
In addition, the children who received early education were older on average, when their first child was born.
The study offers more evidence that learning during the first months and years of life is important for all later development.
The researchers of the Abecedarian Project believe their study shows a need for lawmakers to spend money on public early education. They believe these kinds of programs could reduce the number of children who do not complete school and are unemployed.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written and produced by Brianna Blake. I'm Bob Doughty.
And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.