Why Breastfed Babies Are So Smart

Study of 7,500 babies finds two parenting skills that are crucial to IQ boosts at four years of age.

Study of 7,500 babies finds two parenting skills that are crucial to IQ boosts at four years of age.

Many studies over the years have shown that children who are breastfed score higher on IQ tests, but until now the exact cause has been a mystery.

Some scientists said it was something in the milk, others that it’s about the bonding between mother and baby and others still that these and other factors all contributed.

A new study, though, suggests that it’s the parenting behaviours that make the difference (Gibbs & Forste, 2014).

Researchers at Brigham Young University examined data from 7,500 mothers and children collected from birth to four years of age.

They found that two crucial parenting skills were responsible for the boost to cognition. Mothers who breastfed were more likely to:

  • respond to children’s emotional cues,
  • and read to children at 9 months of age.

Together these factors were enough to put children two or three months ahead when they reached four-years-old.

Lead author Ben Gibbs explained:

“Because these are four-year-olds, a month or two represents a non-trivial chunk of time. And if a child is on the edge of needing special education, even a small boost across some eligibility line could shape a child’s educational trajectory.”

The results came from a group of children followed from birth through to five-years-old.

Researchers included all kinds of data about the home environment including:

  • how early and often parents read to children.
  • how supportive and sensitive mothers were to their child’s emotional cues.

It was better educated mothers who were more likely to breastfeed and at the same time also more likely to read to their children and be emotionally responsive.

School readiness

None of this means that breastfeeding doesn’t confer other advantages, it does: for example, breast milk has considerable health benefits.

The suggestion is that breastfeeding doesn’t directly affect IQ, rather it is reading to their children and the high emotional responsiveness of mothers which boosts intellectual development.

The authors conclude:

“Although breastfeeding has important benefits in other settings, the encouragement of breastfeeding to promote school readiness does not appear to be a key intervention point. Promoting parenting behaviors that improve child cognitive development may be a more effective and direct strategy for practitioners to adopt, especially for disadvantaged children.”

Image credit: Harald Groven

Gifted Children Get Ignored in School Despite Huge Future Contribution to Society

Are exceptionally gifted children being failed by the education system?

Are exceptionally gifted children being failed by the education system?

The authors of the largest ever study of the profoundly gifted question whether the education system is providing enough support for highly talented young people.

The US study, published in the journal Psychological Science, identified gifted children by their SAT scores, which placed them in the top 0.01% of the population, either in maths or verbal scores (Hill et al., 2013).

The 320 children were tracked from the age of 13, until they were 38, to see how they did in their chosen professions.

Notable careers

As you might expect, the exceptionally gifted children were more likely to gain Master’s degrees and PhDs, compared with less gifted children.

Many also went on to have notable careers: they wrote books, composed music, started companies, conducted scientific research, became senior business leaders, and excelled in other worthy occupations.

Even at age 13 it was possible to see in which direction exceptionally children might head:

“…mathematically more able individuals tended to focus on achievement in inorganic fields [e.g. computer science, engineering], whereas verbally more able individuals tended to invest their talent in organic fields [e.g. the arts, social sciences, education]; incorporating motivational dimensions, such as interests in people versus things…” (Hill et al., 2013)

Nurturing talent

However, the thing which stood out for the authors, based on previous research, is the roadblocks which gifted students often face in the education system.

Instead of flourishing, they argue, extra skills are often wasted as educators automatically move their focus to other less talented pupils.

The study’s lead author, Harrison Kell, explained:

“There’s this idea that gifted students don’t really need any help. This study shows that’s not the case. These people with very high IQs–what some have called the ‘scary smart’–will do well in regular classrooms, but they still won’t meet their full potential unless they’re given access to accelerated coursework, AP classes and educational programs that place talented students with their intellectual peers…”

They argue that talented children need to be placed in environments that challenge them, so that they can fulfil their true potential:

“…adolescents with extraordinary talent in mathematical and verbal reasoning profit from learning environments that present abstract-symbolic material at a level and pace commensurate with the atypical rates at which these students learn.” (Hill et al., 2013).

These types of environments are much more likely to increase the psychological well-being of exceptional students and help them achieve more in the future.

If exceptional students are our future, why do many societies automatically provide extra help for those with learning difficulties, but not for those with exceptional learning facilities?

Image credit: Thomas Hawk

The Baby Illusion: Mothers Underestimate the Height of Their Youngest Child

Youngest children appear three inches smaller to their mothers than they really are.

Youngest children appear three inches smaller to their mothers than they really are.

A new study published in Current Biology finds that mothers underestimate the height of their youngest child; no matter how many children they have (Kaufman et al., 2013).

The study found that mothers underestimated their youngest child’s height by an average of 3 inches (7.5cm). This finding held even for only children.

This is set against the fact that mothers were pretty accurate when asked to indicate the height of their other children, and of everyday objects.

The lead author Jordy Kaufman, explained:

“Contrary to what many may think, this isn’t happening just because the older child just looks so big compared to a baby. It actually happens because all along the parents were under an illusion that their first child was smaller than he or she really was. When the new baby is born, the spell is broken and parents now see their older child as he or she really is.”

To reach this conclusion, 70 mothers were asked to place a mark on the wall estimating the height of each child.  Across the mothers, the youngest child’s height was consistently underestimated.

The authors argue that this is an evolutionary adaptive mechanism that encourages mothers to nurture the youngest child.

Growth spurt

The researcher’s interest was piqued when they surveyed 747 mothers, asking if they had noticed a spurt in the height of their ‘erstwhile-youngest’ child, when their next was born.

More than 70% of mothers said they had noticed this growth spurt and many agreed that it seemed to happen overnight.

Whether or not an evolutionary explanation is valid, this study certainly shows the effect of our knowledge and feelings on our perceptions. Kaufman continued:

“The key implication is that we may treat our youngest children as if they are actually younger than they really are. In other words, our research potentially explains why the ‘baby of the family’ never outgrows that label. To the parents, the baby of the family may always be ‘the baby.'”

[Note: children whose height was estimated were between 2 and 6 years of age–the findings may not hold for older age-groups.]

Image credit: Sergiu Bacioiu

Spanking Children Promotes Antisocial Behaviour and Slows Mental Development

90% of studies on spanking agree that it’s bad for children.

90% of studies on spanking agree that it’s bad for children.

A new book which includes research on over 7,000 US families plus data from 32 different countries, has found that spanking is ultimately detrimental to children.

The book, by Professor Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire and colleagues, finds that four decades of research is heavily against the use of spanking for children (Straus et al., 2013; The primordial violence: spanking children, psychological development, violence, and crime).

While it may work to correct their behaviour, it doesn’t have any advantages over other methods, and also has significant disadvantages.

Professor Straus explained:

“Research shows that spanking corrects misbehavior. But it also shows that spanking does not work better than other modes of correction, such as time out, explaining, and depriving a child of privileges. Moreover, the research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a big cost.”

According to the research, more than 90% of the studies agree that spanking is not good for children.

The problem is that spanking children is associated with:

  • Poorer mental development.
  • Weaker emotional ties between parents and children.
  • Increased risk the child will hit other children
  • Increased risk the child will later hit their partner.

The authors of the book say there is probably no other area of childcare in which the research evidence is so clear.

Professor Straus added:

“More than 20 nations now prohibit spanking by parents. There is an emerging consensus that this is a fundamental human right for children. The United Nations is asking all nations to prohibit spanking. Never spanking will not only reduce the risk of delinquency and mental health problems, it also will bring to children the right to be free of physical attacks in the name of discipline, just as wives gained that human right a century and a quarter ago.”

→ Read on: 10 Current Psychology Studies Every Parent Should Know (you’ll recognise number 4)

Image credit: Lotus Carroll

How to Teach Children to Share

Don’t force them: when given a choice, children’s sharing behaviour increases in the future.

Don’t force them: when given a choice, children’s sharing behaviour increases in the future.

It can be difficult to get young children to share their toys with others.

Some parents’ first instinct is to bribe or even order them to share, but this may be a mistake in the long-run, according to a recent study published in Psychological Science (Chernyak & Kushnir, 2013).

The study found that when 3- and 4-year-old children were given a free choice about whether to share, this encouraged them to share more in the future, in comparison with when they were instructed to share.

Building a sharing personality

While directing children to share seems like a good idea, it can backfire.

That’s because unconsciously children assume if they have to be told or bribed to share, then sharing must not be something they would do willingly. In other words: they learn that they are not naturally ‘sharing people’.

However, if children are given the choice to share or not share, then those who share will come to believe they are ‘sharing people’.

This is based on the well-established idea that people work out who they are, at least partly, by observing what they do.

Although we tend to think of our actions flowing from who we are–which they do, partly–that’s not the whole story.

That’s because we aren’t always sure what causes our actions; we also get feedback about who we are from noticing what we do and why.

When you help an old lady across the street, it reinforces the idea in your mind that you are the kind of person who helps old ladies across the street.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And so it is for children: if they notice that they share without being coerced or bribed, then they are more likely to decide that they are the kind of people who share.

The study’s lead author, Nadia Chernyak, said:

“You might imagine that making difficult, costly choices is taxing for young children or even that once children share, they don’t feel the need to do so again. But this wasn’t the case: Once children made a difficult decision to give up something for someone else, they were more generous, not less, later on.”

Image credit: David Robert Bliwas

Soda Consumption Connected to Behavioural Problems in Children

A new study of 2,929 5-year-old children has found a link between consuming sodas and bad behaviour.

A new study of 2,929 5-year-old children has found a link between consuming sodas and bad behaviour.

The US researchers found that children who drank more soda were more likely to be aggressive, to have attention problems, to get into fights and to destroy other people’s belongings (Suglia et al., 2013).

This backs up findings in adolescents that have linked drinking more soda to self-harm, aggression, depression and even suicidal thoughts (Lien et al., 2006Solnick & Hemenway, 2013).

Among the 5-year-olds, 43% consumed at least one soda per day and 4% had 4+ servings per day. Those consuming four or more sodas a day were twice as likely to be involved in bad behaviours as those who drank none.

Is soda causing bad behaviour?

Since the study was based on associations, it doesn’t necessarily tell us that drinking soft drinks caused the behavioural problems, but this study does support the possibility.

For example, you might think that drinking more soda was a signal that a child had a troubled background. And it was the troubled background that was the real cause of the behavioural problems.

The researchers found evidence against this possibility by measuring the following factors and taking them into account:

  • socio-demographic factors,
  • maternal depression,
  • intimate partner violence,
  • and paternal incarceration,

The link between drinking soda and behavioural problems persisted with these variables factored in.

One factor the authors didn’t control for, though, is blood sugar level. It may be that some children with lower blood sugar consume more soda, and it’s the lower blood sugar that causes the bad behaviour.

Nevertheless the link still needs explaining. So perhaps it is the soda after all, given that:

“Caffeine has been linked to insufficient sleep, nervousness and jitters, impulsivity, and risk-taking in children and adolescents, and a study of 9- to 12-year-old children in Brazil found that those with depression were more likely to consume caffeine.” (Suglia et al., 2013).

Apart from caffeine, the other possible causative factors in sodas are:

  • high-fructose corn syrup,
  • aspartame,
  • sodium benzoate, and
  • phosphoric or citric acid.

Since sodas are hardly a healthy choice for children or adults–they have been associated with obesity, heart disease, asthma and more–it makes sense for parents to limit their intake for both physiological and psychological reasons.

Image credit: Ally Mauro

One Extra Hour of TV Reduces Toddlers’ Kindergarten Chances

Each extra hour of TV damages toddlers’ vocab, math and class engagement 3 years later.

Each hour of TV above recommendations damages toddlers’ vocab, math and class engagement 3 years later.

A new study that followed almost 2,000 Canadian children from birth found that an extra hour’s TV viewing at 2.5-years-old predicted worse performance later when they attended kindergarten (Pagani et al., 2013).

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should watch no more than two hours of TV per day after two years of age, and none before that age.

The study backs up this recommendation, finding that the more children exceeded this recommendation at 2.5 years old, the worse their vocabulary, math and motor skills were at 5-years-old.

On average the children watched 1.5 hours of TV every day but increasing this by just one hour was enough to put a dent in their psychological scores three years later. Not only that, but they also had weaker attention and were more likely to be bullied by classmates.

The study’s lead author, Professor Linda Pagani of the University of Montreal explained:

“This is the first time ever that a stringently controlled associational birth cohort study has looked at and found a relationship between too much toddler screen time and kindergarten risks for poor motor skills and psychosocial difficulties, like victimization by classmates.”

Although this is the best study available linking TV watching with cognitive performance amongst toddlers, there have been hints of the dangers:

  • One study found that just 9 minutes of watching fast-paced cartoons had an immediate negative effect on 4-year-old’s executive function, such as their ability to delay gratification (Lillard & Peterson, 2011).
  • Another study found that watching noneducational programmes at age 3 was associated with attentional problems at age 4-5 (Zimmerman et al., 2007).

The first three years of life are a critical period in brain development, a fact of which some parents seem to be unaware. After 3-years of age, there’s evidence that the right kind of preschool TV can be beneficial. Before that, though, many scientists think TV is best avoided or severely limited.

Image credit: tOmsk

How to Recapture the Simple Pleasures of Childhood

Study backs (brief) abstinence as a path to more pleasure from routine activities.

Study backs (brief) abstinence as a path to more pleasure from routine activities.

One of the great things about being a regular unspoiled kid is that you hardly have any money.

While all your basic needs as a human being are met—food, shelter and so forth—the actual income of the average child is paltry. And, in some ways, that’s a wonderful thing.

I’m not sure I fully appreciated this at the time, but looking back I can see it is true.

When I got a new toy or was taken to the cinema, it seemed all the more exciting, not because I was deprived, but because I perceived it as a special and rare gift.

As an adult I can easily make choices that would have dazzled my younger self: should I so desire, I can buy more candy than I can possible eat, go to the cinema every day and order piles of brand new books. Not that I appreciate these things now of course.

But perhaps it’s possible to recapture some of that excitement about relatively simple pleasures using very simple means. Quoidbach and Dunn (2013) ask whether one way of appreciating what we already have is to voluntarily give it up for a period.

I’m sure they’ll be the first to admit that it’s far from a novel suggestion, but surprisingly they couldn’t find anyone who has scientifically tested whether it really works and why.

In their study they had one group of participants give up chocolate for a week while a second group were given a big bag and told to gorge. A third group were given no chocolate-related instructions—they acted as a control.

When the participants returned to the lab a week later they tried some chocolate and their ratings were compared with those they’d provided a week ago.

Sure enough the abstainers got more pleasure from the chocolate than either the control or the gorging group. Not only that but the boost to pleasure was due to increased savouring. The experience became more enjoyable because they really concentrated on it.

There’s one word of caution here: people were more likely to drop out of the no-chocolate condition than the other two groups. This suggests some people find abstinence, even for a short period, is too much of a challenge for their self-control (you know who you are!).

Although not examined in this study, one of the other upsides of quitting for a period is the pleasure in anticipation of its return.

So, why not give up something today? For a whole week you’ll have the pleasure of anticipation and you’ll enjoy it more when it returns.

A little judicious self-denial can be a wonderful thing.

Image credit: Lotus Carroll

Infants Imitate Others When Only Weeks Old

What do infants understand about the social world?

What do infants understand about the social world?

One of the most basic forms of social behaviour is copying another person.

Although imitation is something we adults take for granted, it’s actually a pretty demanding process for a young infant.

At the heart of imitation is understanding the difference between yourself and others – something that famous Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget thought didn’t emerge immediately in infants.

Consequently he argued that infants could not imitate others until they were 8 to 12 months of age.

Stick your tongue out

In 1977, though, Andrew Meltzoff from Oxford University and M. Keith Moore from the University of Washington published a study that questioned Piaget’s theory and was destined to become a classic in child psychology (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977).

Their study was straightforward enough.

An experimenter sat in front of tiny infants who were between 12 and 21-days-old.

There he stuck his tongue out, opened his mouth, pursed his lips and moved his fingers, then watched, with a blank face, for the infants’ reactions.

Sure enough the infants seemed to copy him.

The key to their study, though, was in showing that the infants were really imitating the experimenter rather than just sticking their tongues out or opening their mouths for some other reason.

In other words: was this true imitation or something much more basic that couldn’t be considered social interaction?

Imitation or something simpler?

Meltzoff and Moore tested all sorts of alternative explanations:

  • Were the infants simply getting excited by the experimenter? Probably not: when the experimenter opened his mouth, the infants responded with the same gesture, not by sticking their tongue out. And when the experimenter stuck his tongue out, infants stuck theirs out.
  • Was the imitation just a reflex of some kind? Probably not: when infants had a pacifier in their mouths while the experimenter stuck their tongue out, they still imitated him after it was taken out a short time later.
  • Had parents been training their children beforehand? No, parents were not told about the purpose of the experiment until afterwards.
  • Was the experimenter accidentally signalling the infants after the initial tongue protrusion or mouth purse through further small facial movements? No, the experimenter’s face was videotaped and rated independently as blank in the ‘infant response periods’.

Born with social skills

This study is a major piece of ammunition for those who argue that infants are born into the world partly pre-programmed for social interactions.

It has now been replicated many times and suggests infants don’t have to learn to navigate the social world completely from scratch; from a very early age they have some grasp of their bodies and can copy other people.

→ This article is part of a series on 10 crucial developmental psychology studies:

  1. When infant memory develops
  2. How self-concept emerges in infants
  3. How children learn new concepts
  4. The importance of attachment styles
  5. When infants learn to imitate others
  6. Theory of mind reveals the social world
  7. Understanding object permanence
  8. How infants learn their first word
  9. The six types of play
  10. Piaget’s stages of development theory


How Children Learn the Earth Isn’t Flat

A classic study of childhood learning suggests true understanding comes from letting go of established preconceptions.

A classic study of childhood learning suggests true understanding comes from letting go of established preconceptions.

Imagine the revelations we all once absorbed: humans are descended from apes, numbers can be usefully replaced by letters to solve problems and the Earth is (near-enough) a sphere which rotates around the sun.

Despite their momentous importance for our understanding of everything around us, these facts can seem relatively trivial now, just as they were all in a day’s work when we learnt them back in school.

However obvious these ideas might seem now, there was once a time when we just didn’t get it, a time when maths was just numbers, humans were a species apart and the Earth was flat.

How children revise their understanding of the world is one of the most fascinating areas of child psychology.

But it is not just relevant to children; we all have to take on new concepts from time-to-time – even though they may not be as profound as the origin of the species.

It’s tempting to think that learning is largely about memory – especially since in the bad old days of education learning was largely accomplished by rote.

Of course fully appreciating complex ideas is about more than just memory, it’s about understanding.

But what mental processes take us from mere rote learning to genuine understanding?

A classic child psychology study carried out by Professors Stella Vosniadou and William Brewer provides a central insight into how we reach genuine understanding.

They used a cognitive psychological theory called ‘mental models’ which suggests we create, and then test, mental models of the way the world works in order to build up our understanding.

This theory implies there might be a series of intermediate points where we have some grasp of a concept, but it isn’t yet complete.

It’s these intermediate mental models that Vosniadou and Brewer wanted to look at for evidence of understanding in progress.

What shape is the Earth?

For their study Vosniadou and Brewer (1991) interviewed sixty children who were between 6 and 11-years-old.

Each was asked 48 questions, starting with the relatively innocuous: “What shape is the Earth?”, and then moving on to more probing questions designed to reveal the mental model of the Earth they were using.

While most of the children started off well by representing the Earth as a circle, it soon became clear to the researchers that children had all kinds of different mental models.

When asked what would happen if you kept walking and walking for ages and ages, many replied that you would fall off, which was surprising given that they thought the Earth was a sphere.

Some even said you would fall off onto another planet.

Others said that while the Earth was round we live on a flat surface inside it.

At first the answers seemed rather haphazard and inconsistent, as though children were just making them up.

But then, with further questioning, a clear pattern of responses began to emerge (brackets contain the number of children displaying this mental model):

  • Rectangular Earth: thought the Earth was a flat rectangle which you could fall off (1/60).
  • Disc Earth: thought the Earth was a flat disc which you could fall off (1/60).
  • Dual Earth: thought that one ‘Earth’ is flat which we are standing on and there is another ‘Earth’ in the sky that is round. Their answers revealed they saw the planet as flat when asked about ‘the ground’, but round when asked about ‘the Earth’ (8/60).
  • Hollow sphere: thought we live inside the Earth on a flat area (12/60).
  • Flattened sphere: thought that the Earth was a flattened sphere so that there were areas on the top (and the bottom) where people could live (4/60).
  • Sphere: the amount of children demonstrating the conventional view steadily increased across the age ranges examined (23/60).
  • Mixed models: the rest of the children either did not give consistent answers or models could not be constructed for them (11/60).

The fact that four-fifths of the children could be fitted into clearly defined categories shows how we are likely to construct the same types of mental models as each other, both accurate and inaccurate.

Understanding in progress

These results show the mind working to come to terms with a brand new concept that is fundamentally alien to the senses.

Our everyday experience suggests the Earth must be flat, otherwise, as gravity pulls us down, we’d slide off it.

This is our first ‘mental model’ of the Earth.

Then we are taught the Earth is approximately spherical and we try to update our original model but, it appears, for a period we get stuck in between.

It’s these intermediate mental models that point to how we try to make sense of new concepts by first trying to integrate them into our current understanding in some way.

The hollow sphere and the dual Earth models that children adopted are two examples of this.

Both are ways of trying to hold both the flat Earth and spherical Earth models at the same time.

What was holding back the children’s learning was their presupposition, coming from everyday experience, that the Earth is flat.

Until they let go of this old way of looking at the Earth, they can’t fully embrace a new view; they can only create an ugly, if occasionally ingenious, compromise.

Established presuppositions from personal experience are powerful factors which are difficult to let go of, even when contradictory evidence is staring us right in the face.

Sometimes real understanding is less about learning new concepts than letting go of old ones.

→ This article is part of a series on 10 crucial developmental psychology studies:

  1. When infant memory develops
  2. How self-concept emerges in infants
  3. How children learn new concepts
  4. The importance of attachment styles
  5. When infants learn to imitate others
  6. Theory of mind reveals the social world
  7. Understanding object permanence
  8. How infants learn their first word
  9. The six types of play
  10. Piaget’s stages of development theory


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