Monthly Archives: November 2009

When Parting May Not Be Such Sweet Sorrow

Wow! That was a lot of guilt purging last week. I hope we're all travelling a little lighter this week if only because we've been reminded that we are not alone in carrying that MOTHER LOAD of guilt. Seriously, thanks for all the sharing. Not only has it been great to hear that we are not alone, but it's been great to get to know you a bit. We aim to please…so the more you tell us, the more you can help shape this site, what gets covered etc. 

In that spirit..
Last week's group carthasis started with Bella's guilt over her departure to Europe, but someone (Paola?) mentioned that she was also interested in the garden variety of separation anxiety.  I thought I"d give a little background into the research on separation anxiety (regular kind) but then leave you with a couple of questions that, to my knowledge, are not so well covered in the research literature. The first is an issue about separation anxiety that I"ve experienced with my son (there we are in the pic in those "all important" early days). I've also heard about it from friends re: their experiences with their own children. Once again, it would be great to hear about your experience…

Here's a quick "Did you know…?" to set it all up (just some highlights mind you, the literature on attachment is MASSIVE).

Fig4 1. One of the key studies that influenced thinking on human attachment came from a study with monkeys. Infant monkeys were given a choice of a). a surrogate mom made of wire, with a plastic nipple attached that delivered food or b). a similar wire mother with no food access but who was covered in a soft terry cloth. Although they nursed from the wire mom, the monkeys preferred the cloth mum (as in, they spent 17-18 hours a day with the cloth mum versus 1 hour with the wire/nipple one), even more so when food was not at issue but the monkeys were frightened by some foreign object that entered the room. You can read more about the study here. Although this finding came from a study with monkeys and not human babies, it raised the idea that food supply may not be as central to developing an attachment to a caregiver (as previously believed) as comfort and security. 

2. Of course the MAJOR line of research on human attachment came from Mary Ainsworth's work in the lab using something called the "Strange Situation". Basically, moms and infants come to the lab and spend some time in a "waiting room" of sorts (magazines for mom, toys for baby etc.). Over the course of 15 minutes, the people in the room change. At first mom is alone with baby. Then a stranger enters. Mom leaves baby with the stranger. Mom returns, then leaves again. Then the stranger also leaves and baby is alone. Stranger returns, then mom returns. Each of these scenarios last only a very short time; less than a minute to 3 minutes max. The researchers were mostly interested in what happens when mom and baby are reunited. Based on baby's reaction to mom's return, the babies were classified as either a). securely attached, b).avoidant attached or c). anxiously attached. The secure babies (about 65% of the infants tested) got upset when mom left but were comforted and quickly re-assured by mom on her return. In contrast, the avoidant (about 23%) babies were somewhat detached, did not show much emotion, even avoided mom or acted unaffected by her departure and also her return. Interestingly, biological markers (such as heart rate and skin conductance) later showed that these babies were nonetheless in distress. And the anxious babies (about 13%), were VERY upset at mom leaving, seemed upset or even angry on her return and were not easily reassured. 

The argument goes that securely attached babies, confident in a secure base to return to, are more free to explore their environment and therefore to learn. There is evidence that they fare better than avoidant- or anxiously- attached babies on complex problem -solving tasks and that they are generally better adjusted in later childhood and beyond.

3. In case you're freaking out because you don't believe that your child would react like a securely attached baby, here's something to consider. There is evidence that the proportion of babies in the different categories varies across cultures. E.g. supposedly there is a greater proportion of "avoidant" babies in studies with German infants  (although a more recent study with a German sample showed more of a "normal" distribution of babies across the three categories)  and of "anxious" babies in studies with Japanese infants.. Makes sense if you consider that parenting practices and styles definitely differ cross-cuturally, although perhaps less so nowadays what with the whole global village, internet etc. revolution.  In that case, it would be normal, and perhaps highly adaptive, for babies' attachment behaviors to reflect the culture they are being raised to function in.

4. A student of Mary Ainsworth – Mary Main – went on to do pioneering work on adult attachment. She was interested in how your memories regarding attachment with a primary figure when you were a child compared to the type of relationships/attachments that you form as an adult (in friendships but particularly in romantic relationships). Turns out that in ~75% of cases, that early style of attachment stays with you and is similar to the types of relationships/attachments formed in later life. Although, keep in mind that it has also been suggested that certain "buffering" factors can help mediate that connection. So a rough time in childhood does NOT necessarily mean that you are doomed to repeat that pattern as an adult.  

So there you go, some points to ponder. Here's what I'm interested in hearing from you:

My son has been very attached to me, since very early on. At 18 months of age, he would get upset if I left the room to go the bathroom, even if he was in the company of his father or grandparents who he knows very well and loves dearly. A good friend of mine's child went through a phase (granted he was quite young, maybe only 6-7 months or so) where he would get upset when she bent down over the sink to brush her teeth and was momentarily out of his view. Both of these kids improved immensely, but then with no warning would show this intense reaction all over again. No precipitating event, so stressful time, no new baby, move, change of preschool or daycare, illness of loss of a family member etc. Then it would subside, only to return again. And so it went. This summer,at almost 5, my son went to a day camp for the first time (for 2 weeks). He did not know a soul, it was in a location he did not know well, first time taking his own backpack, own lunch etc. But he did not even blink. "See ya Mum". That was it. Ditto the first day of school some weeks later. So we seem to have come out the other side. It's understandable to me that there may be sensitive periods in development when kids are more likely to suddenly seem anxious about separation agai
n, but sometimes he would sail through those sensitive periods without a blip and sometimes not. 

I'm interested to hear from you about "bouts" of separation anxiety. Anyone out there have a child who would "zoom" in and out?  At what ages?  What do/did you attribute it to?

Finally, as a mum of only 1, I"m always interested to know how kids with siblings cope with things. If you have more than 1, are/were your kids similar or different when it comes to separation anxiety?  Also, do you think that how the younger one or ones handled separation from you was different to how their older sibs handled it because they had sibs – read: company – to help tide them over until you returned? 

Send me your thoughts…


Can I ask you something? Guilty as charged.

After that last novella of a post, I thought I'd keep it a tad more brief today. I'd like to start putting up some posts that get us all contributing a bit more in the comments section. I would love to hear from you about some suggestions about how we could facilitate that better. All ideas are welcome!

In the meantime, how about I ask you a few questions about yourself over the next few months? First off, I'm just deeply curious about who our readers are. But also, I'd like to generate questions that might help with brainstorming ideas for future posts and, equally important, questions that may just help us know each other better (you know, in that totally anonymous, confidential, woo-woo disembodied world of the interwebs sort of way).  I'll answer whatever I ask, so it's a more even playing field. (And feel free to ask your own questions in the comments section). So… here it goes:

What do you feel guilty about? (Yes, I know, I KNOW, my upcoming business trip away from my kids has me focused on some pretty OBVIOUS issues I have). For better or worst, so much of what we do or don't do as parents is tainted with feelings of guilt. Here's my (incredibly SHORTENED) list of things that I feel guilty about:

- leaving my kids (duh)

- sleeping in on the weekend and letting my husband make the kids' breakfast

- HATING, HATING, HATING to read Thomas books, so much so that I finally bought CDs that go along with the damn books and I plonk my kids down on the couch to listen to them when they ask ME, their one and only mother, to read it to them

- skipping brushing my kids' teach in the morning about 2 times/week (when we're late for preschool… we're ALWAYS late for preschool)

- being late for preschool

- not cooking dinner for my kids 3 times/week

- yelling at my kids (but tell me… why WHY, WHY can't they JUST. PUT. ON. THEIR. SHOES?!)

- Not making eye contact with my husband until I've been home from work for 30 min. or more.

- Exercising when I should be playing with the kids.

- Not exercising.

And I could go on and on and on.  But it's your turn…

Strategies for easing separation anxiety (Ours or theirs?)

Let’s start with the necessary caveat: What follows is based mostly on my own experience, the experience of my trusted and often brilliant friends and colleagues and a whole lot of reading about related and unrelated topics. I have found very little trust-worthy science on evidence-based techniques that help ease or prevent children’s separation anxiety related to longish (a few days or weeks) separations from parent(s). Of course, there’s a whole lot on children’s separation issues, but in terms of an actual “how to” manual, program, or list of stuff that’s been “proven” effective? Not so much… But if you’re a mom like me who is always looking for ways to help my kids cope with (or even delight in) my trips away from them, I hope you find some ideas here useful.


So, first and foremost, I think that the sorts of things that will help our kids through these separation periods will vary wildly from one child to another. I talked mostly about age or stage of development in the last post, but there are a whole host of other considerations to keep in mind. For one, there’s the child’s temperament. Some kids are so mellow and easy-going that separations aren’t that big of a deal in the most dramatic of cases. These kids may need very little in the way of preparation and thoughtful strategies. Other kids are very sensitive/emotional/fragile/spirited in general and separations, even one night out on the town, may be highly problematic. We’ve talked a little about temperaments before here and here and, as usual, you know your child best and you’ll have a sense of what’s most appropriate for him or her.


Another source of variation comes from the other side of the equation: parents. Your parenting style, beliefs, the cultural norms you were brought up with, your own history of separations from your own parents and your own personality/temperament will determine in large part the sorts of strategies you chose to implement or stay away from.  My parents, for example, went away on vacations without my brother and me over the course of my childhood. I  now understand how fun that must have been for them, but for us, the kids, we LOVED staying with our grandparents — they were WAY more permissive, gave into our every whim, and showed us and taught us whacky things we would never have been exposed to otherwise.


Then there’s the support system available to you when you do consider leaving for extended periods. Some parents may have a large family of close relatives living close by that would be thrilled to take their children for an extended visit: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and so on.  Others have nannies or babysitters that have been close to their children for years. Still other parents may have a spouse or romantic partner that is ready, willing and eager to FINALLY have the kids all to him/herself. And then there’s always neighbors and close friends that may have fabulously close relationships with our children and who may be happy to take our kids for a weekend. These multiple attachment figures may be crucial for how children adjust to our departures. BUT… other parents don’t have the luxury of these support systems; or they may have them, but they don’t live nearby. Having to leave our children with people who don’t adore our kids and who our kids don’t likewise love can be so, so difficult and make long-term separations almost unbearable or simply impossible.


Finally, there’s the context of the separation that matters. Leaving because you “have to” for work or some stressful, distressing event (visiting a sick loved one, funeral, etc.) compared to leaving because you “want to” have an adult holiday which is child-free can feel very different both for the child and the parent. All these conditions will make a difference in terms of what sorts of strategies you feel comfortable using and which ones will be effective. 


Here are some ideas that I’ve used or I’ve heard has worked for other parents (there’s nothing particularly original about them, so please add your own in the comments):

  1. DO tell your child you’re leaving, if she’s at the age that she can understand your words. It can be incredibly distressing to have the separation foisted on a child without the parent discussing it first with her. Of course, if the child is 6 months old, this won’t likely matter, but past the age of 8 or 9 months, I would say it’s important for the parent leaving to even briefly tell the child what to expect.
  2. Personally, I would NOT tell the child about the impending separation until about 1 or 2 days beforehand. Knowing too far in advance may only serve to heighten anxieties and prolong them. Of course, this will have a HUGE amount to do with how you know your child. Some kids need LOTS of time to prepare for transitions and this may not be the right approach for them, but for many children, keeping in mind a day or two in the future is just about all they can do.
  3. Some parents find it useful, especially for young children, to create a picture book or digital album of photos of the places mom will be visiting. These pictures can be put into a “book” and read to the child while you’re away. The ending can be about how soon you’ll be flying back and how fun it will be to play again together (with appropriate pictures to accompany these sentiments).
  4. Focus on the positive: Draw your child’s attention to as many “good things” about the impending trip as you can. Kids take so many of their emotional cues from us (remember the research on social referencing?). For example, for my upcoming trip, I told my kids that when I get back, we’ll be going to get a Christmas tree right away and I played up how much fun decorating would be. I also told them all the great things they’d be doing with their father: you’ll be going to a restaurant almost every day! You’ll be going on forest adventures! You’ll get to watch a DVD every night if you want! These are all “special” things that they love and wouldn’t be doing if I was around. (Mean old mama). And of course, the classic trick: tell them you’ll be bringing back a special present for them. Some of you may have issues with the bribery aspect of this, or the “materialism” (for what it’s worth, I usually end up spending very little money; things like cool rocks and fun postcards and zippy dollar-store cars usually suffice) or the fact that it makes kids so focused on your gift rather than the pleasure of seeing your face again when you return. For me, there is nothing that gives me more relief and helps me get over the period of separation as seeing my kids’ faces light up when I return — I really don’t care if it’s about the toy, I just want them happy. I respect and understand why others may have opposing views (and please let me know! I’m sincerely interested!). Also, in the past, the promise of a toy when I return helps with phone conversations when I’m away. I remind them that I’m looking for just the right present for them, they ask me what it will be, I tease them a bit about it being a surprise, and the excitement and joy that that brings seems to help with thinking about mama so far away.
  5. Allow the caregivers that are taking care of your child while you’re away to talk about you and your absence. Some grandparents or caregivers might be tempted to distract the child when she brings up your absence, in hopes of lessening the child’s sadness… but ignoring or trying to distract the child at that point may just heighten anxieties. I was actually surprised to hear how infrequently my children brought me up over the course of my business trips. But when they did, my parents or husband made sure to reassure them that I was indeed coming back very soon, that I missed them and that it was ok for them to miss me.
  6. Call them… or don’t. In my experience, and in conversations with lots of other mothers, I find this to be a tough call. Some kids will become very reassured to hear your voice when you’re away — it seems a good thing to remind them that mommy’s still “out there”, thinking about them, she hasn’t disappeared. On the other hand, some children will BECOME distressed from hearing your voice. The phone is this funny thing — it sort of connects you, but it’s also pretty darned frustrating because you can hear mommy, you can speak to her, but you can’t HAVE her. She’s perpetually out of reach and that partially met goal of connecting with mom can be the source of incredible frustration that can turn into pure rage and a deep sense of loss. I think the extent to which kids react well or poorly to these phone conversations has a lot to do with temperament. But it ALSO may have a great deal to do with the age/stage of the child. I think the early sensitive stages that I’m always referring to, in particular the 18-21 month transition period, may be the hardest for phone conversations. It’s because of how vulnerable children are to separations in general during these phases and how needy they can be. They may be coping just fine without you, but when you call, that neediness and vulnerability (and the potential anger that can be triggered by the sense that you are purposely withholding your love from them) can be a lot to take.  And you can’t physically comfort them, which is what they’re often looking for at this age. From personal experience, this was the toughest time I ever left my kids — when they were just over 17 months old. But it was MY fault… I called. They were having a perfectly fine time with their father and until I decided to call, more because I missed them and wanted to connect than any perception that they were having a hard time (my husband had repeatedly reassured me that they were doing great). One of my boys did fine with the call and took it all in stride (yup, the temperamentally easy one). But the other, oh the tears… It was like he SUDDENLY realized I wasn’t there and the waves of vulnerability overwhelmed him. Needless to say, I cried far more than he did after that call (Marc called me that night to tell me, over and over again, how quickly he bounced back and how effective watching Mary Poppins was to wiping out any residual sadness).  And I never called again during that trip. My advice to parents who are leaving for the first time, or for the first time during a more sensitive stage, is to (a) trust your gut and (b) if you feel you need to call, do it once and feel it out, keeping in mind that it might be tough and you may want to make that the last call of your trip if it is difficult for the child.
  7. When children get a little older, approximately 3 years or older, try video skyping if you have the capacity. There’s something about seeing a face connected to the voice that I think is MORE reassuring to a child than just this disembodied voice on a phone. It can also be fun and exciting to kids, to get on a computer to talk to mom (but younger than 2 may be very confusing and creepy, so feel it out and maybe practice a few times before your departure, with younger ones). We’ve tried this once with my kids and they LOVED it. For this upcoming trip, I started what they call a “chapter story” before I left. I told them 2 chapters and then when I skype them on my trip, I plan on continuing a chapter per night over the course of the trip and finish the story when I return home. That way, I figure they’ll have a sense of continuity, they’ll get to see and hear me and know that I’m still out there thinking of them, and they’ll get some exciting “screen time” which seems to be a strange form of crack for my kids.
  8. Finally, depending on the age and temperament of your child, expect some “reunion distress.” This is a VERY common reaction that almost all kids have at some point or another during their development. It can be just as distressing, or more so, for the parent who has just returned as it is for the child. Basically, instead of the child being thrilled to see you and excited about hugging and kissing you, he reacts with either extreme anger (hitting or pushing you away) and/or by withdrawing. My husband studied reunion distress for years and it’s ubiquitous (I’ll spare you the links to his rather dry papers on the subject). Children who are securely attached to their parents often feel the first jolts of anger at being left when the parent returns. It’s as if, when you were gone, they could hold it together with the knowledge that you were returning. But once you’re back, they sure need to let you know they did NOT appreciate being left. During these reunion periods, my suggestion would be to not take it personally. Give the child some space and time to adjust to your return. Let her know you love her, that you’re sorry you had to leave her, that you’re excited to play with her again. Stay close — it might be tempting to withdraw also, but try not to. Usually, these episodes subside rather quickly, but sometimes they can leave a residual moodiness and sensitivity for days. Spending extra time with the child, being extra sensitive to her needs is usually enough to get her over the hump.


PHEW! Is this the longest post I’ve EVER written? I had no idea I was embarking on a tome on this subject. Hmmm… do you think all this writing about separations may be a way for me to cope with my own impending trip away from my BABIES?!?!  My sweet, helpless, mother-less babies!!!  Ahem. Well, there you go (Whispers to herself: They will be fine. They will be fine. They will be fine).


What are some of the other ways that you’ve prepared your children for a separation of some length? What’s worked best? What doesn’t work for your children?



I’m leaving on a jet plane, my kids will never be the same again…

 I'm out of the country this week so I've got a few posts that will go up automatically for the next few days. As you'll see, it seems like I couldn't get my head around only one theme this week — probably has a lot to do with how completely out of control my life feels right now. It's all good: I'm LOVING being with my kids these days (they'll be 4 in March and there's just something about this age that seems to groove with my parenting style), I'm crazy-busy at work with some great projects, and I'm traveling overseas to work with fabulous people. Each one of these things seems great on its own, it's the combination / balance that I'm having a problem with. Yes, I know this isn't a personal blog, apparently I just need to get those excuses out. And it sets up the premise for today's post and tomorrow's follow-up…

I thought I'd post some thoughts about longer separations from our children. I don't mean leaving your child for a few hours or for the evening. I'm talking for a couple of days or longer. We've had two readers send questions about this issue, the gist of which boiled down to two main concerns: (1)  Are there better and worst ages to leave your child for a few days/weeks? and (2) What can I do to make the separation more bearable for my child?

Since my kids turned one and I returned to work full time, I've thought (and freaked the freak out) about these questions a lot. I've had to leave my kids for 2-6 days at one time about twice per year for business trips. Leading up to these trips, I invariably get very anxious about how my boys will cope. I try to remind myself that they're with their father, that he is an equal partner in this parenting gig, that they love him equally and need him equally. But who am I kidding? There's no doubt about the equal love, but the attachment is different and when they get tired, hungry, hurt, frustrated, or challenged in other ways, they want mommy (and I fully recognize this isn't the case for all family situations). But we do what we have to do — some of us have little choice but to leave our kids for a few days and many of us actually think it's healthy to go away for a weekend or so without the kids (count me in both groups). 

So… are there better and worst ages to leave your kids for a while? For those of you who have been following this blog for longer than a couple of weeks, you'll probably have a good guess at my answer. Yes, I DO think there are certain stages that will be harder than others for your children to deal with separations. Those stages happen to correspond to the sensitive windows in development that I spent 6 months talking about in terms of sleep training children. The same stages that are particularly difficult for sleep training are also generally difficult for ANY transition, especially those that have to do with separations. Before the age of about 8 months or so, I actually think these separations are not too bad for babies (I suspect they're much harder on moms). They haven't yet reached the big 8 – 11 month transition that will usher in a sudden burst in working memory and allow the child to understand that "out of sight is NOT out of mind." Even when mom is not in the room, she's "out there" somewhere… As I've written at length, this ability to keep mom in mind even when she's not present results in the onset of full-blown separation anxiety — NOT a time when you first want to take off on your child for days on end. Another stage you may want to avoid leaving for extended trips is the 18-21 month period. This is a DOOZY (and, of course, it happens to be one of the ages when I DID have to leave my boys… I remember the weeping phone calls to this day). I won't get into all the MANY, MANY reasons why this stage is considered the most dramatic transition period in early childhood… you can read about all the gory details here.  Suffice it to say that children are really GETTING social interactions in a way that they weren't able to before — "real" language takes off, they understand simple rules and family members' roles and they get the idea that they are expected to follow rules and respect those family roles. Most parents report this stage as the most intense emotional period in their child's life, fraught with buckets of neediness, moodiness, tantrums, meltdowns, and general crazed vulnerability (there's lots of research to back this up, reviewed in our book). Leaving your children for extended periods during this phase may heighten their sense of vulnerability and neediness and it may take a while before you child "forgives" you for leaving, once you are back. 

The other stages to watch out for are the 2.5 to 3 year old period and the 3.5 to 4 year old stage. Different developmental issues are at play at each of these various sensitive periods, but the general rationale for avoiding long-term separations during these phases are the same: these are developmental transitions during which children are more emotionally vulnerable, more attuned to separations and their meaning, and they're in need of more reassurance and support than at other more stable periods.

Ruby's jetplaneA couple of extra considerations: (1) Kids will likely be more vulnerable at the beginning of these sensitive periods, when new cognitive acquisitions are just emerging and they're coping with this novelty; the more into the stage they are, the more likely it is that they've started to learn to cope with their new sense of the world (and the accompanying new skills). Or at least that's what I'm telling myself, as my kids round the corner of a sensitive stage (3.5 – 4 years old) and I'm gallivanting in Europe. (2) If you gotta go, you gotta go. Sometimes we have no choice but to take off during one of these sensitive periods. In those cases, the mere recognition that it might be tough on our kids might be important. We can try to put in place some plans that might help ease children's distress like scheduling more phone calls (or less, depending on how your child responds to these brief connections from afar) and/or taking some extra time off when we return.

But that's the topic for the next post: What CAN we do to make separations from our children less stressful? (Hint: See this pic of one of my boys? That's just one of WAY too many guilt presents he got after I returned from my last overseas trip <sigh>)

Tell us: Have you left your child during one of these sensitive periods or during more stable ages? How did it go? Do you think it's easier to leave younger or older children? How have your children coped with your times away? How have you coped? Do you think it's generally a good or bad idea to leave your children (with a partner or grandparents or other trusted caregivers)
for a few days?

(I haven't said this in a while, so I wanted to remind readers: ALL opinions are very welcome, whether they conflict or are consistent with mine. We want to know what YOU think. What YOUR experiences have been. And I'd like to hear from those of you who DON'T think it's wise to leave kids just as much as I'd like to hear from those who do. Really. Let's talk…)

Friday Link Love: Some studies on early language acquisition

Some further weekend reading, for those of you interested in language development in particular:

At some point this week, in the comments section, someone voiced their worry that they may have already missed the "sensitive window" for exposing their child to a second language. I think it was Chaosgirl and she wondered, like so many of us have, if earlier is better in terms of the ease with which children might be able to acquire a second language. So, I had to laugh when I recently read this. Apparently, kids are starting to get the sense of their first language IN UTERO. I can just see it now: There will be big ol' fuzzy headphones made for pregnant women to put on their bellies and pipe in podcasts of people speaking several of their favourite languages.

And then there's this article: I remember being an undergrad and having coffee at my hip little cafe DECADES ago and secretly cringing at all that syrupy high-pitched chatter that I used to hear new moms use with their babies. "I'LL never be that RIDICULOUS with my babies" I thought. Thankfully, I got over myself because all that "motherese" (as developmentalists like to call it) actually HELPS children acquire language better than when we use our normal "adult" voices.

Finally, picking up on the earlier discussion about bilingualism, here's a fascinating article showing how bilingual infants learn words differently than monolingual children. They seem toS-KLINGON-large use different strategies, given that their "cognitive load" is heavier. These differences mean that bilingual children often can't detect slight differences if words are very similar-sounding, so they often look like they're lagging behind their monlingual peers. But this strategy seems adaptive to learning, and perfecting, two different languages in the long run.

And then, there's THIS doozy of a early language experience (thanks Julie!)!  A man spent the first three years of his son's life speaking only in KLINGON to him… Being the Star Trek fan that I am (SHUT UP), I wasn't as appalled as some may be.

– Isabela

The Cat in the Hat in the Amniotic Sac: What Can Sucking Tell Us About Hearing?

Cat in the hat What's with the feline in the millinery?  As with yesterday's post, try not to shoot the blogger if you've already heard this one. It's an old study (early 80's – never mind that I can remember the time…just barely I'll have you know), but the media has gone wild with it ever since it first came out. I just could NOT think of a week of posting on methods in infant research without mentioning it. What about that title? Gotta love it!

This study used sucking to shed light on prenatal hearing.In earlier work, the researches had determined that very young infants would adjust their sucking rate to be rewarded with hearing their mothers voice (I bet this doesn't happen in the teenage years…but I digress…). Mothers read The Cat in the Hat Story or another one of two other stories to their unborn fetuses, 2x per day for the last 6 weeks or so of pregnancy. Soon after birth, the researchers measured infant sucking when they heard the story they heard prenatally vs. one of the other stories. What happened? The newborns worked hard (sucked faster or slower) to hear the story they heard in the womb – moreso than to hear the other story. By playing with this method a bit more, later work showed that it was the rhythm of the story and not the words that the babies were responding to. BTW, the babies also worked harder to hear mom do the reading over some other female voice reading the same story. This study was a real landmark in establishing at least a couple of things: 1). the state of development of hearing in the womb and 2). how the prenatal environment helps tweek perception. 

If you're now thinking "Wow, amazing how far these researchers will go", consider this: in another (now old) study a pregnant woman was asked to swallow a tiny microphone so that researchers could gain a better sense of just exactly what the baby can hear in there. Can you imagine it? "It's in the name of science ma'am. Please just please swallow the technology." 

So I'm on a roll now. Here's another interesting way that researchers have used sucking. The main question was whether information taken in through one sense (e.g. sight) is stored in such a way that it can be accessed through other senses (e.g. touch). The technical term is cross-modal or inter-modal perception. In one study, 1-month old babies were allowed to suck on either a smooth or a bumpy pacifier – but they were NOT allowed to see it. The babies were then shown two simultaneous pics, one of the smooth pacifier and one of the bumpy one. And guess what? They looked longer at the one they had sucked on but NEVER SAW, as though they recognized it. So what they had taken in through sucking or touch was stored in a more general way, a way that was accessible through another sense, sight.  

Finally, I wanted to briefly mention the use of "geodesic nets" – think "hairnets with sensors" that provide real-time information on the patterns of brain activity as the brain processes something e.g. a picture, a sound, an event etc. The baby wears a get-up like the one shown here. Newsweek Baby brain
It's not painful at all and many babies are surprisingly co-operative about the whole experience. For more on geodesic nets and language studies, put in user friendly terms, try here.

Phew. It's been a whirlwind tour through infant research this week. Now seems like a good time to ask how this stuff is all working out for you. Too technical? Nerdy? Boring? Less on studies, more on parenting connections?  It would be great to hear some feedback. I hope that even if the details were too much or we covered too much ground that you might have gained a new respect for that bundle of sweet-smelling, soft, cuddly goodness. That's one amazing brain growing in there!


Can You Hear That? Listening Study Yields Amazing Insights About Early Human Language

In response to yesterday's blog on clever techniques researchers use to get at the goings on of the infant brain, someone asked if the "habituation technique" I described with looking is also used with listening. If you missed that post, click here for a quick primer. The answer of course is YES!

I was going to post an example of a listening habituation study but if you read yesterday's post, you can probably figure out how that would go. Here, instead, is an example of a listening study using a different listening technique called "conditioned head turning". I wanted to include it because it is one of the more famous studies with mind-blowing findings (if you didn't already hear about it in the media), that have come from infant listening work. I hope you agree that it's incredibly cool!

Check it out:

The Scoop: All babies are born with the capacity to acquire language and which one (or ones) they end up using depends on which one (or ones) they are exposed to. So it's not so surprising that young babies can hear and tell the difference between speech sounds that us old folks can no longer hear e.g. Japanese infants can hear and discriminate between the "r" and "l" sounds in the English language more easily than Japanese adults. Interestingly, the paring down of your sound repertoire to the sounds in your language (s) of exposure happens around 10 months of age, just around the onset of language production. It's as though the brain is honing in on what it will need to find our way in the social world.

In fact, the evidence suggests that this "honing in" may apply to social stimuli in general i.e. not just language. Another study showed that young infants can discriminate between different faces of the same race, a phenomenon that holds for different races; Chinese, Caucasian, African etc. But by 9 months of age, they seem to lose that fine tuned ability and are best at discriminating faces of their own race!  Read: social input goes a long way to influencing our social perception. Here's a link to one of the relevant papers in case you're really curious.

Notice that the speech and face processing narrowing is happening around the same time? Why? Probably because it's more efficient to be finely tuned to the social environment you have to deal with, the one you need to find your way in, to have your needs met in etc.

I don't know about you, but after reading this stuff I usually have two reactions: 1). Wow! Fascinating! and 2). Holy crap it's so much responsibility raising a child. What is he being exposed to?  Do we educate bilingually?  Is he getting multiracial/multicultural input?  Is that necessarily good or bad or something I should worry about at all?  Ughhh!  Then I usually realize that time is marching on and stuff is happening anyway, like it or not. There's only so much we can control…

- Tracy

What’s going on in that sweet little head of yours?

Ever look at your baby and wander what the heck is going on in that head? Ever read those articles in magazines or newspapers or hear stuff on the radio about scientific studies on human infants (non-medical) and wonder "How the heck do they know that?".  Can't exactly ask the baby. Heck, they hardly stay awake long enough to find out anything anyway, even if they could talk.

This week I thought I'd take you behind the scenes of infant research to give you a peek into how scientists get inside that head. In a nutshell? They take advantage of the things that babies already like to do such as suck, listen to and look at new things. Looking has probably been explored the most. And dude, you'd be amazed and what we've learned from theses studies.

Looking studies typically use something called "visual habituation". The set-up looks something like this:Dadandbabycb

Mum or dad wears a pair of headphones, so they can't nudge, budge or influence baby's behaviour in any way (like try to make them look especially brilliant- kidding, kidding…). Baby is given something to look at on the screen (image, video etc.). At first the baby is interested and looks intently ("Hey, what's that?!"). But eventually, baby gets bored and starts to look away – "That again, whatever…" We say that the baby has "habituated". Then the display changes and baby sees something new. If they look with renewed interest – "What the…?!" (we call this "dishabituation")- then we know that the baby detected the difference between the old and new thing. That's it.

Ho hum, you say. But get this, sometimes the change between the old and new thing can be VERY subtle (we're talking teeny-weeny). By tweaking these subtle changes – while keeping everything else in the displays the same – we've learned a whole host of things about what 's going on in that noggin'. And we're talking tiny babies (newborns, 1-month olds) right up to toddlers. 

Check out this example: In one study, 6 month olds who were habituated to displays of say 8 black dots on a white screen, looked longer when the display changed to 16 black dots. As the two displays contained the same brightness, density of dots, total area of the dots  (i.e. the amount of black), the researchers concluded that the infants must have detected the difference in number. We're talking 6 month olds here people, they're not counting (at least not the way we do)! Cool huh? 

Infant looking has been used to study everything plus the kitchen sink: we're talking awareness of spatial position, proportion, solidity of objects, understanding gravity, adults' intentions (did they mean to grab that object or just touch it by accident?), discriminating faces of the same race, sensitivity to facial expressions and even to rudimentary addition and subtraction (with some conclusions more hotly debated than others).  And get this: it takes longer for babies of depressed moms to habituate to a happy face compared to babies of non-depressed moms, presumably because it's more novel to them! 

Kinda makes you see that bundle of sweetness in a whole new light doesn't it? So what do you think? Are you surprised by some of these findings? Did you have other ideas about how researchers pried their way into the infant brain?  Wanna know about anything in particular about the baby brain? Send your q's and stay tuned to hear more about ingenious ways of getting at the inner sanctum later this week.

Friday Link Love: It’s been a long week and I just need some funny to get through the last leg

I don't really know you guys that well, so I debated putting this up. But I figure you can tell me if you're offended just like the rest of the internets can yell at each other. And it might be fun, cathartic even!

I read this yesterday and snorted into my coffee several times. Do you guys know It can be funny. If you're not into the f-word being bandied about (or any other "offensive" expletives) then it probably isn't for you.  After reading way too many studies this week about one thing or another that made almost no sense to me when I put it all together, this "article" offered such a refreshing perspective. I particularly liked the fact that it hit on several issues we've discussed here (either in a post or in the comments). In fact, the number 1 "Thing that Good Parents Do (That Screw Kids up for Life)" was the topic of last week's featured blog post — and for the record, my rant seems like fairy dust compared to theirs.

So, for your weekend pleasure, The 7 Things "Good Parents" Do (That Screw Kids Up for Life)!

Have a good one!

– Isabela

Get back to play and learn some self-control, Johnny!

Pretend play
Thanks to one of our readers, Bonnie, for suggesting the topic of today's post, this New York Times article. It would be silly for me to review the whole article here, given it's the NYTs and their writers are kinda good. So… go read it first and then we can talk a bit about some of the issues it raises.

Back?  Excellent!  So, the article presents a program that is attempting to teach children the kinds of self-control skills that we've been talking about this week — not just delaying gratification, but also being able to shift attention when you have to, being able to SUSTAIN attention when you have to, being able to wait patiently for your turn, being able to persevere without being distracted until you've solved a problem, and so on. Unlike other school programs, this particular one (called Tools of the Mind) doesn't try to teach kids with explicit directions to control themselves, nor does it advocate using behavioural principles like negative feedback for "bad" behaviour and positive reinforcement for "good" behaviour. Instead, the program is designed to foster self-control by creating a learning environment that is steeped with opportunities to USE and practice these skills. A large part of the day is spent encouraging (and even "teaching") children how to engage in "productive" pretend play. Yes, they're TEACHING children how to pretend to be princes, princesses, mommy with baby, batman and robin, and so on, all with the idea that this helps children practice and get better at sustained attention and self-control. Here's the most interesting quote out of the the whole article for me:

"Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s
followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can
control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations.
In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still
for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a
minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were
guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than
four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were
asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery
store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time,
though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the
children were able to remember twice as many words. Bodrova and Leong
say they see the same effect in Tools of the Mind classrooms: when
their students spend more time on dramatic play, not only does their
level of self-control improve, but so do their language skills."

Interesting, huh? So, at least for the 3-6 year olds, making playdates (how I loathe that word) during which we encourage kids to dress up and play house, doctor, superheros and restaurant (and hope they leave us alone to eat our cake and gossip) is just what they need to acquire those self-control skills. MAAAAAAAAAAAAYBE.

The truth is, the jury is out on the science part of this claim. The crux of the article, if you read it all the way through, is
that they're not quite sure IF this whole pretend-play focus and Tools of the Mind in particular works. Equally important, even if it does turn out that it works, they have
no idea WHY. The current studies aren't even looking at the various elements in the program (and there are many) that may be facilitating greater cognitive and emotional control. And there are no other well-designed, replicated studies that have established effective strategies to teach children cognitive control. 

My guess is that there are some things we can do to help (provide lots of practice with waiting for a reward, teach self-distraction strategies, play games that require turn-taking, enforce rules about listening to others at the dinner table, etc.), but that the vast majority of children are in environments that already naturally foster these skills at develomentally appropriate ages. Executive function or cognitive control or whatever you want to call it has been shown to increase steadily over the ages of 2 and 5-ish (and it keeps going, just at a slower rate). For a fabulous paper (Carlson, 2005) that reviews the neuropsychological and cognitive studies, click on the first link in this Google Scholar search (I keep trying different ways to post original scientific papers through links on this blog). 

And in answer to the orginal question on Monday about what to do with a 1-year old that can't delay gratification: I'd say apart from Tracy's recommendations to just keep the enticing stuff out of sight, there's not much you can do… and that's TOTALLY fine. One-year olds don't have the mental capacity yet to control their impulses, thoughts, or emotions (nor will they until about the age of 2 and then, just barely).

So, at this point, your guess is as good as any scientist's: What do you do with your children that may be helping them to develop better self-control? Do you think there are some things we do that may delay these acquisitions?

– Isabela