What Fascinates Your Baby, and Why
By Mary Arrigo
Three-month old Jacob Azriel can't get enough of the ceiling fan. "He'll fling his head back when I'm holding him so that he can look up and watch it go around and around," says his mom, Patricia, of Albany, New York. For 4-month old Conor Muerle of San Francisco, his own reflection is a constant source of amusement, according to his mother, Georgia. "He smiles so broadly at himself whenever we hold him in front of a mirror."
From birth, babies crave sensory experiences, whether they involve touching, tasting, or hearing music. Stimulating the senses sets the stage for learning and physical, emotional, and social development, so it's vital that parents satisfy that need.
The best way to do this: Take your cues from your baby, say experts. Because infants have very individual sensory thresholds, what's captivating to one child – a particular kind of mobile, for example – might be scary to another. And more often than not, the object of a baby's attention will be something as simple as water being poured from a cup. "Babies notice the little details that adults screen out," says Amanda Woodward, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, who has a curious 4-month old of her own. "They don't have any expectations about how things should be, so everything they encounter is new and interesting to them."
The amount and type of stimulation your little one enjoys also depends on his individual neurological system, as well as on other factors, such as whether he's tired or hungry or what kind of mood he's in that day.
You need to become the authority on what pleases your baby, and then find ways to provide enough stimulation without overwhelming him. But you must look sharp, because a signal that your child has had enough may be as subtle as turning his face away. In baby language, that's like saying "I'm outta here," says Linda Rubinowitz, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
The things that most fascinate babies usually fall into one of these categories:
If it moves, you can bet your infant's eyes will be drawn to it, especially if it also happens to make a noise (think jangling keys, a chatty sibling, or a musical spinning top). Experts say that this attraction is "hardwired": It's how a baby is biologically designed to react.
A preference for moving objects may also have to do with the way an infant's brain develops as she grows. "Observing how things move eventually helps us identify them and understand what they're there for," says Arlene Walker-Andrews, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Rutgers University. This affinity for motion is one of the reasons that people, animals, and mobiles all tend to be particular favorites with babies.
Studies have shown that infants 4 months or older will look longer and more intently at objects that are new to them rather than at things that are familiar. That's why a baby may stare at a stranger – especially if this person has a beard, eyeglasses, or other features that are different from what he's used to. It's also why a favorite toy will lose it's appeal after a while and why a person he doesn't see every day, such as a delivery person or an aunt, will often get him very excited.
We've all heard about how infants like to look at things that are black and white, but their preference for strong contrast goes beyond that. Babies will often stare right at your hairline or into your eyes, drawn to the darkness of the irises against the white background. They may peer happily at a pattern of leaf shadows moving on a wall (it's got both contrast and motion) or gaze with rapt attention at dark beams against a white ceiling or a blue and white striped couch. One study, which used cameras to capture exactly what aspects of their surroundings babies seems to enjoy looking at, found that they'd stare at the outlines of things, such as the edge of a table or where the wall meets the ceiling – anyplace where light and dark come together.
No one knows exactly why infants love contrast so much, but there are several possible explanations. One is that there are more neurons being fired inside of a baby's brain when she's looking at things that are distinct from each other, which indicates increased stimulation, says David Moore, Ph. D, associate professor of psychology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Also, since babies aren't able to focus clearly on things that are beyond about 12 inches in the early months, when they're looking in the distance, their eyes will gravitate toward objects that they can see better, such as those that have dramatic contrast.
Infants love feedback. Whether it's a rattle that jingles when they shake it or a voice that coos back at them when they gurgle, they like to feel they have an effect on the world around them. Since they're constantly trying to figure out how things work, anything that reacts to them will hold their attention.
In fact, babies are so sensitive to cause and effect that even infants as young as 1 month will take note – and sometimes even get upset – if something they expect to happen doesn't. In one famous experiment, researchers sat in front of babies, one on one, keeping their faces blank no matter what the infants did. When the infants tried to engage the adults who were looking at them and couldn't, they burst into tears, usually within about 45 seconds.
This need for a response is one reason a baby is naturally drawn to faces. Mom's face is one of the first things he sees when he's born; on an evolutionary level, being able to search out and focus on the most important item for survival, his mother – certainly makes sense. Not only that, faces come with many of the characteristics that infants find so fascinating: motion, novelty, contrast, response, and even sound.
Babies especially love to look at baby faces, including their own. Looking at lots of different visages, even if they're just pictures, can keep them occupied for a good long time.
Rhythm and Music
Almost all babies love a good beat, whether it's a favorite lullaby, a Bach prelude, or their own hand pounding the high chair tray. While researchers aren't sure why this response to melody and rhythm is so universal, some theorize that infants have been primed in utero to appreciate music. "The sounds they heard prenatally -- their mother's heartbeat, her voice, even her blood flowing through her veins -- all have a cadence that's comforting," says Moore.
Babies' appreciation of music appears to be so fine-tuned that in one study, when researchers played part of a Mozart concerto with an added pause in the melodic flow, the infants seemed to prefer the uninterrupted version, just as an adult would, says Moore. (Babies were able to choose one version over the other by sucking on a specially rigged pacifier fast or slowly; they consistently picked the music that didn't have the pause.)
"As they get older," says Rubinowitz, "babies like to play with sounds. That's what gurgling and babbling is all about. They love to hear other people sing and talk, as well as hear themselves; this communication is very exciting for them."
If you do something, chances are that your little one will want to give it a try too. Daily activities such as aiming the TV remote control and pressing its buttons, spooning your food from your plate to your mouth, and putting on makeup, are fascinating for babies who want – and need – to learned to do everything you do. While even a newborn will imitate your facial expressions, it isn't until 4-6 months that infants are able to really mimic the things they see.
Babies' love of imitation is why grown-up objects like cell phones, garage-door openers, and eyeglasses are favorite toys. We certainly seem to have fun "playing" with them, so it makes sense that they'd want to take a turn too.
Taking some of the mystery out of the things that your baby loves most can help keep her happily occupied – and give a whole new perspective on the world around you. "The things that fascinate my daughter amaze me," says Marla Renfro of Bellevue, Nebraska, whose 8-month old, Shavonne, is constantly captivated by the ordinary objects around her, such as the family cat. "She'll stop crying, stop eating, stop everything to watch, smile and laugh at the cat," says Renfro. "For her, each day is a new chance for discovery. Through her, I've started finding the joy in small things all over again.
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