Monday, 3 October 2011

Do we need to stimulate babies quite so much?

Increasingly, parents seem to be given the message that special stimulation is needed to help babies develop. As if babies have not, over a long period of human evolution, been optimised to develop well in ordinary conditions.

Nursery baby rooms are commonly equipped with black and white zones, to stimulate babies' vision - as if their vision would not be perfectly well stimulated by a nice range of natural colours. In fact, placing immobile babies in these zebra-striped zones seems a pretty unpleasant act to me - I would hate to be stuck there. And I wonder if it gives a damaging impression to parents. Thanks to the experts, your baby's vision will be stimulated in this black and white zone (imagine if your baby had been left at home where you did not know any better than to place your baby amongst normal colours?).

Just the other day, I saw this outside a church when I was walking in Stoke Newington (North East London):



There is nothing actually wrong with this poster. Babies' brains are incredibly active and it is roughly true that they do form 1000 trillion connections by the end of the third year - an astounding thought. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with being humbled by what babies and toddlers do.

The problem comes from the implication that if you are not doing lots of very special things with your baby, then these developments won't happen and you may even end up with a non-genius baby. It is highly unlikely that any of those "simple enjoyable games" at "Genius Babies" make any impact, positive or negative, on the incredible activity and development of a baby's brains.

There are many good reasons to get parents with babies together. Principally, I would say, because it can be a lonely time for a parent and there is a lot to be said for good company, making friends, and finding out that yours is not the only baby that hardly sleeps, is fussy with food, or cries a lot.

Do groups like "Genius Babies" help parents feel more or less confident? I worry that the implication that you need to follow a pseudo-scientific programme to help your baby's brain develop builds anxiety and makes it harder to be a parent.

In any case, do we really want genius babies? Wouldn't reasonably content, well-loved babies be OK?