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January 2011





Do Baby Einstein DVDs work? Exposing infants to educational dvds may affect their language development.

A few weeks ago I wrote a study that showed that exposing premature babies to Mozart music may lead to metabolic changes that facilitate weight gain and better medical outcomes. That study is an example of one credible and positive outcome that came out of the “Mozart effect’ craze. Unfortunately, most of the other claims, such as that listening to Mozart improves intelligence, have been discredited. So today I’m discussing a similar fad: making babies watch “educational” dvds or movies. For example, an entire industry has been developed to provide ‘educational’ dvds designed for infants and toddlers, such as the Baby Einstein DVD series reduced and marketed by Walt Disney. These dvds are marketed as developmentally appropriate for young children and able to facilitate the development of various cognitive skills such as language. For example, the dvd Baby Wordsworth is supposed to help babies learn 30 English words using child-friendly scenes (e.g., puppets, etc).

But do they work?

The journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine just published a study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of California at Riverside. The study included 95 babies/toddlers between the ages of 12 and 25 months. These children were randomly assigned to a Baby Wordsworth DVD condition or to a no DVD group. Parents of the children in the DVD group were asked to use the Baby Wordworth DVD as they would use any other media at home. The no DVD group simply completed a series of laboratory tasks but were not provided with a dvd to watch at home.  The study lasted for 6 weeks. Before and after the 6 weeks, the children went through a battery of tests and the parents completed a series of scales designed to measure the baby’s language and cognitive skills.

The results:

1.      By the end of the 6 weeks,  there was no difference between those infants who were repeatedly exposed to the dvd and those who were not exposed to the dvd in regards to their general language and cognitive abilities.

The above finding is not really surprising as it would be unrealistic to expect that the dvd would have a major impact on the children’s cognitive or language function in just 6 weeks. So a better question would be: Does the dvd help children learn those 30 words?

2.      By the end of the 6 weeks, those infants who watched the dvd during this time were not more likely than those who didn’t watch the DVD to say the words, recognize the words, or identify the words using pictures of the objects.

The findings suggest that the educational DVD does not facilitate the learning of these words by infants when exposed to the dvd in a naturalistic setting for 6 weeks. So far, I had not been surprised by these results, but I was a bit surprised by the following:

3.      Those infants exposed to the dvd at an earlier age (closer to 12 months) had lower overall language scores at the end of the 6 weeks than those exposed to the dvd at a later age (closer to 24 months) or those not exposed at all.

This seems to suggest that early exposure to the dvd can actually negatively impact language development. Although a couple of previous studies have found similar effects, this study is critical because it helps us answer one key question: does early exposure to the dvd affect language development or do children with language development simply tend to watch more tv/dvds? For example, it is possible that parents of children who have more language delays buy the educational DVDs in order to help their children. If this is the case, there would be an association between watching dvds and language delays, but it would not be the DVD that contributed to the language delay. But this study suggests that this may not be the case because the participants in this study were randomly assigned to the DVD or the no DVD group. That is, in this study, the use of the DVD is unlikely to be due to parental concerns about the children’s language development.

So what can explain the possible detrimental effects of watching these educational dvds at an early age? The authors mentioned a couple of possibilities. It is possible that having the dvd as a tool kept the parents from engaging verbally with the infants leading to a delay in language development. It is also possible that the dvd lacks one major component of the language learning process: The Authors explain:

Regarding word learning specifically, a large body of language acquisition research suggests infants are more likely to learn words for novel objects if a speaker is looking at an object rather than attending elsewhere or looking directly at the child.18 Thus, learning words from a television screen requires children to be paying attention to the screen and also to be aware of the relevant referent object to which the on-screen labeler is referring. In the case of the DVD used in this study, the onscreen character looked directly at the children and signed the name for the object while a voice-over spoke the label. This scenario is very different from the optimal word learning scenario for children younger than 2 years.

Regardless of the reason, the results of this and previous studies seem to suggest that exposing young infants to television, even when such media was specifically designed as an educational tool for babies, may be associated with a delay in language development.
The reference: Richert, R., Robb, M., Fender, J., & Wartella, E. (2010). Word Learning From Baby Videos Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.24

Source:  http://www.child-psych.org/2010/03/do-baby-einstein-dvds-work-exposing-infants-to-educational-dvds-may-affect-their-language-development.html

In Our Time on the Infant Brain:

This morning’s edition of BBC Radio 4’s brilliant In Our Time was dedicated to the infant brain and has a wide ranging discussion about how ideas about the early development of the child developed into the modern age of neuroscience.

The streamed version will be available on the website permanently, but if you want to download the podcast you only have a week to do so from this page.

Melvyn Bragg and guests Usha Goswami, Annette Karmiloff-Smith and Denis Mareschal discuss what new research reveals about the infant brain.

For obvious reasons, what happens in the minds of very young, pre-verbal children is elusive. But over the last century, the psychology of early childhood has become a major subject of study.

Some scientists and researchers have argued that children develop skills only gradually, others that many of our mental attributes are innate.

Sigmund Freud concluded that infants didn’t differentiate themselves from their environment.

The pioneering Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget thought babies’ perception of the world began as a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ of colour, light and sound, before they developed a more sophisticated worldview, first through the senses and later through symbol.

More recent scholars such as the leading American theoretical linguist Noam Chomsky have argued that the fundamentals of language are there from birth. Chomsky has famously argued that all humans have an innate, universally applicable grammar.

Over the last ten to twenty years, new research has shed fresh light on important aspects of the infant brain which have long been shrouded in mystery or mired in dispute, from the way we start to learn to speak to the earliest understanding that other people have their own minds.

Link to In Our Time ‘The Infant Brain’ (thanks Petra!)

Source:  http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2010/03/in_our_time_on_the_i.html

Babies, Even When Premature, ‘See’ With Their Hands

ScienceDaily (Feb. 28, 2010) — Even premature babies at 33 weeks post-conceptional age, about 2 months before term (40 gestational weeks), are capable of recognizing and distinguishing two objects of different shapes (a prism and a cylinder) with their right or left hands. This is the first demonstration of fully efficient manual perception in preterm human infants.

The phenomenon was discovered by researchers at two laboratories: the Laboratoire de psychologie et neurocognition (CNRS / University of Grenoble 2 / University of Chambéry) and the Laboratoire de psychologie de la perception (CNRS / University of Paris Descartes) in cooperation with a team from the Neonatology Department of the Grenoble University Hospitals. The findings have been published on the PLoS One website.

The source of all perceptual knowledge, the sense organs and sensory systems of premature babies are less efficient than those of full-term babies, even though the latter are also not yet fully developed. Starting in the very first minutes after birth, a full-term infant is subjected to extensive tactile stimulation: it is washed, held on its mother’s stomach, nursed, diapered, etc. Its body almost immediately experiences contact with skin other than its own, with towels, sheets, nipples — in short, with objects of different textures, shapes and consistencies. It is common knowledge that a baby will flex its fingers tightly if its palm is touched by a finger, but this grasping reaction is not just a simple reflex. Even in the first hours of its life, a full-term newborn already has effective manual perception, a tactile capacity that enables it to make sense of its environment. But what about the premature infant, whose neurological functions are even less developed due to its early birth?

To find out, the researchers conducted an experiment with 24 premature babies aged 33 to 34+6 gestational weeks (GW), approximately 2 weeks after their birth. Their average gestational age (age at birth) was 31 GW (which corresponds to about 7 months of pregnancy) and their average weight at birth was 1500 g. The research team adopted an experimental method based on habituation (first phase) and reaction to novelty (second phase), similar to that used for full-term newborns. This method relies on a simple universal principle: the gradual loss of interest that all humans experience in relation to a familiar object and the renewed attention elicited by a new, unfamiliar object. In the first phase, the researcher places a small object (a prism for half of the babies and a cylinder for the other half) in one of the baby’s hands (the right hand for half of the group and the left for the other half). As soon as the infant lets go of the object, the experimenter places it back in the same hand and measures how long the baby holds the object each time. The researchers observed that the holding time decreased over the course of the trials, indicating that the baby had become “habituated” to the shape of the object.

In the second phase, once the babies are habituated to their first objects, the researchers present an object with a new shape to half of the group and a familiar object (the same as in the habituation phase) to the other half. The result: the holding time is longer for the new object (reaction to novelty) than for the familiar object. This proves that the decrease in holding time (observed in the first phase) is not due to the babies’ simply growing tired, because otherwise they would not be more interested in something new.

This experiment reveals for the first time that preterm infants are capable of recognizing an object with their hands (tactile habituation) and that they show a preference for a novel object, reflecting their capacity to differentiate between two objects of different shapes (tactile discrimination). In other words, each time they hold an object, premature babies, like those born at term, are capable of extracting information tactilely on its shape, temporarily storing this information in their memory and comparing it with new tactile input. If the object is the same they soon stop holding it, but if it is different they show greater interest. Therefore, preterm infants, like full-term newborns, are receptive to tactile information and are already learning.

These findings improve our understanding of the perceptual capacities of premature babies and should help neonatology professionals optimize the handling and treatment of their preterm charges, in particular for the purpose of reducing their stress and offering them optimal conditions for their development.

Journal Reference:

  1. Lejeune et al. The Manual Habituation and Discrimination of Shapes in Preterm Human Infants from 33 to 34 6 Post-Conceptional Age. PLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (2): e9108 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009108

Source:  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100226205020.htm

The Role Of Baby-Sign In Child Development

Article Date: 10 Mar 2010 – 1:00 PST

How important is it for mothers to use hand gestures to communicate with their infants? This is the key question investigated by new research being showcased at the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science on 18 March.

The event ‘Communicating with Your Baby’ has been organised by Professor Karen Pine from the University of Hertfordshire. Members of her team, Neil Howlett and Dr Liz Kirk, will be sharing their findings on ‘baby-sign’- a form of non-verbal communication for infants.

Baby sign language is increasingly popular in the UK. It is based on hand gestures, which enable mothers to interact with their baby before he or she is able to talk. This method means infants can communicate if they are hungry or want to play.

Signing with babies can help some children from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as those from low-income households. Yet the majority of mothers who take their babies to baby-sign classes are well educated and from higher-income households. These babies enjoy a healthy home learning environment so are unlikely to need baby sign. Professor Pine’s research suggests mothers may be ‘overcompensating’ by buying baby-sign classes or materials.

Professor Pine comments: “We have found that encouraging mothers to use simple hand gestures with their infants can have linguistic and wider non-linguistic benefits for infants, mainly for those who are at risk of language delay, because of social deprivation, low parental education or other factors. It is of prime importance that the outcomes of the research are made available to the community so that interventions are targeted at those who need it.”

The event is targeted at mothers, especially those from low income backgrounds who want to bond better with their babies and learn interaction techniques. A speech and language therapist will be there on the day running special ‘communicating with your baby’ sessions.

Parents will also be given handouts to take away and keep on the benefits of non-verbal communication. Anyone who has questions about Professor Pine’s study can talk to the research team on the day.

The organisers have ensured the event is parent-friendly with a special seating area and soft-play zone as well as refreshments and snacks. People are welcome to just walk in from the street and take part in sessions.

Source: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

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