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?


  1. I couldn't agree more. I suppose it's part of the widespread 'scientification' (is that a word?!), or whatever we want to call it, of ordinary, everyday processes. Reminds me of the endless books giving advice on 'how to conceive' (hello? have sex, preferably on fertile days, fullstop).

    Of course, parenting is an area where this 'scientification' has happened to a huge degree. There are many interesting books about this phenomenon. The number of parenting book about 'how to be a good parent' and what to do with your child as a good parent is remarkable.

    Babies get perfectly 'stimulated' - sometimes even overstimulated- by ordinary, mundane life. Groups are fine, as you say, to cover parents' needs for company & to keep them awake & happy...but the groups are much of a muchness for babies, I suspect.

    The need for company (for parents and children) should be reason enough to do various activities & participate in groups, but that doesn't somehow feel enough in today's climate :) It has to be for a higher purpose!

  2. Hi Maria, thanks for your comment. The idea of "scientification" is a powerful one even if I'm not sure about the word. Am planning to write some more about the spread of "black and white" resources for babies soon.

  3. Spot on. Parents are bombarded with bulls**t products and services, often backed up by the kind of Bad Science that Ben Goldacre skewers so well. The challenge: how to respond effectively, and reach a critical mass of parents, without coming over as yet another 'leading expert'. (Not that I'm suggesting you are doing this here. Quite the opposite!)

  4. It's only since I posted this, that I realised how much this has all been led by the toy manufacturers. Babies need special toys to develop their thinking, vision , etc... bad science, but good marketing I suspect, rather like the cosmetics Ben G writes about so well.