Babies are fascinating. Indeed, human wonderments. That’s what Netflix’s newest documentary, Babies, reveals when it launches today. Twelve episodes (shown in batches of six) filmed over three years explore the first full year of an infant’s life with a targeted look at the science behind elements such as sleeping, eating, crawling and… love. Parentology asked several of the 30+ international scientists involved in the project a very scientific question: What did you learn about babies that surprised the hell out of you? Here’s what they said.
Of course, the Nutopi-produced series starts with love. After all, in the moment of birth, a whole other type of love never experienced before erupts. In Babies’ “Love” episode, scientists delve into such age-old questions as: How does love happen?
Stepping up to the plate to address the question of love’s origins is Ed Tronick, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts and Director of the Child Development Unit in Boston. When Tronick first put on a lab coat, babies were viewed as passive “blobs.” Tronick is credited with changing this viewpoint.
For years, Tronick says, science had a very clinical view of babies. “These classical ‘infants’ lacked emotions, organized behaviors. They were not social. They had no way of being with others and had no way of actively affecting another person.”
Questioning these theories, Tronick ventured into the realm of babies. “An experience at a daycare center made me see classical theorists were, well, colossally wrong: wrong only in the way colossal thinkers can be.”
Designing an educational curriculum for the daycare’s attendees — ages three months to three years — was Tronick’s goal. “It focused on cognition – teaching them about the world of things: toys, colors, objects,” he says. “The curriculum was scientifically up-to-date with the latest research on infants looking at objects, or reaching for objects, or finding hidden objects.” But there was a problem. Tronick’s program didn’t work.
The reason – “The infants needed social scaffolding – social interaction with another person — to feel safe and to engage the world.” When paired with a person they trusted or cared about, the babies communicated, reacted and engaged. “For me, the realization was that social experience was the foundational developmental process.” Tronick’s research has focused on social engagement ever since.
Also addressing “baby love” is Anne Rifkin-Graboi, Senior Research Scientist at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore. “I’ve always wondered why and how the experiences we have seem to shape our lives.”
What she kept bumping into were studies where scientists explored how adverse experiences impact areas of adult brains relating to stress regulation, physiology, memory and well-being.
Catching her attention instead was research on the effects of parenting behaviors on the developing brains of young animals. The question occurred: what about human babies? An opportunity to participate in the GUSTO Project – a study gaining insight and understanding in the prevention and management of important diseases like obesity and diabetes — found Rifkin-Graboi searching for those very answers.
“There’s lots of variation in responsive (sensitive) caregiving across populations-at-large, and so understanding how this impacts the human infant brain has the potential to help us better understand the mechanisms behind behaviors and styles that impact quality of life for a number of people,” Rifkin-Graboi says.
When she first considered potential impacts on the human brain, the general idea was that less responsive (sensitive) care would lead to “altered/worse” brain development. Rifkin-Graboi says, “By the time we had the results from the study featured in Netflix, my colleagues and I had already begun thinking about the way development and context might play a role in such relations.”
More questions emerged, among them, “Do differences in parenting signal something to the baby about what they need to prioritize? Since brain development is energetically costly, do these parenting cues help to signal to the brain—’invest in this particular circuit right now, over that one’ or ‘speed up this process now and concentrate on that one later?’”
Current answers support the idea that kids are developing the kinds of brains they expect to “need most” at a given stage of their lives. “One next step is to figure out whether and how these different paths and skillsets can be capitalized upon to help children succeed in the situations they encounter as they grow,” Rifkin-Graboi says. “Another is to help parents become aware that they have the impact to help shape their children’s brain development, and to empower them to feel confident and excited about this opportunity.”
Sleep, or the lack thereof, is a common topic for parents. Crack the code of an infant’s sleep cycle and the answers to the universe’s questions just might be solved. Or at least feel that way.
Rebecca Spencer, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts in America and director of the UMass Amherst Sleep Monitoring Lab, is a mother. A mother whose daughter missed her morning nap. Rather than get frustrated, Spencer became alert. Her daughter tended to forget information if she missed sleep. Spencer’s investigation into whether sleep can support memory formation in babies began.
“We have been studying sleep and memory in adults and see all of the benefits it has on memory, emotion, etc.,” she tells Parentology. “So we were struck by how parents (and preschools) discount naps in preschool age children (2-5 years) and we have no scientifically-backed guidelines for napping at any age (infancy to preschool).”
What Spencer has learned through her research? “All these sleep bouts interact — whether or not the infant naps in the morning will affect how helpful the afternoon nap and overnight sleep can be. So it’s not just a short-term effect that naps have, but they have long-term effects on the following sleep opportunities.”
Infant sleep is also a passion for Mark Blumberg, Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa. Blumberg has been studying the purpose of twitching during sleep. “Although research in human infants is challenging, we are learning more than we ever imagined.”
What Blumberg’s team saw, “Human infants produce lots of movements during sleep, particularly REM sleep.” When they sped up video of sleeping babies, twitching in the arms, legs and face were apparent. “Any parent can see this by recording their infant and increasing the playback speed.”
The scientists learned the twitches weren’t about sleep at all. Instead, it is a process through which the brain maps the body.
Fascinated by what scientists have learned about babies? You’ll definitely want to tune into Netflix’s Babies documentary series where other experts, especially parents, share what they’ve learned about these amazing little humans.