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Infants Pay Attention As Well As Get It

Studies find observation skills develop remarkably young

FRIDAY, Feb. 13, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Well before their first birthday, infants are paying attention to what goes on around them, setting up the pathways for future development, studies find.

"We've always known that actions in the world are important to development," says study author Amanda Woodward, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. "This shows that these actions are important at a surprisingly early age."

For parents, one message of the studies is that "you have to take seriously how active infants are as thinkers," Woodward says. "They are working hard to think things out and are reacting to them every day."

Another message is that television viewing should be limited even for very young children, 5 or 6 months old, she says.

"Even at that age, having babies just sit and observe the world is not effective," Woodward says. "Active interaction with their environment is important."

Woodward presented the results of two studies involving more than 50 babies Feb. 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle. Those studies show that very young babies can understand that separate actions are ruled by an underlying plan, she says.

The setup was simple: Woodward and her student assistants did the same thing over and over while the babies watched. Eventually, the infants showed signs of boredom.

Then the activity was changed jut a bit. Sometimes the physical motions were changed, but the goal was the same -- opening the lid of a box to take out a toy, for example. Sometimes the motions were the same but the goal was different -- not taking out a toy, for example.

When the goal was changed, the infants responded by paying closer attention, looking a long time at the event. When the motions were changed but the goal was not, the infants did not show an increase in looking time.

Another part of the study showed that babies' activity could be affected by such actions. Three-month-old babies who were taught to use Velcro mittens to pick up a toy paid close attention when an adult did the same thing. Babies who were not taught to use the mittens paid less attention.

The overall lesson is that "parents should make sure children have rich environments to explore," Woodward says. But it's not necessary to get special, expensive playthings to create such an environment, she adds.

"Flash cards and so on are unnecessary," Woodward says. "Babies can oversee their own development."

The first couple of months of life are so filled with necessary activities that special measures are superfluous, she says.

"But 5- or-6-month-old babies should play with toys and manipulate objects with their hands," she says. "And all the things you do around them are important to their development."

More information

A graphic month-by-month scenario of infant development is available from the blithely named Oh Baby. More sources of knowledge can be found at the National Library of Medicine.

SOURCES: Amanda Woodward, Ph.D, associate professor, psychology, University of Chicago; Feb. 13, 2004, presentation, American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, Seattle
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