Experimenting with babies

Equipment needed: baby, aged zero to two
Danial Ehrenworth

Late one night, while Shaun Gallagher was rocking his 15-month-old son to sleep, his mind wandered. His wife was pregnant with their second child, and Gallagher began contemplating ways to make life easier for everyone in future. “I got to thinking about how I would be performing nouveau experiments on my son, trying to figure out the best way to get him to fall asleep or eat,” recalls Gallagher, a journalist-turned-software developer, who was looking for book ideas at the time. He knew his son was capable of a lot, even at that young age, if only Gallagher could tap into his knowledge and skill set: “I find out all the time how I underestimate [babies’] abilities and how much they’re picking up.”

Lightning struck. “It came to me: a provocative title like Experimenting with Babies, but the actual content of the book would not be like Frankenstein’s laboratory; it would be based on published academic research in child development,” says Gallagher. “I would take these studies and adapt them so parents could perform them on their children.”

Indeed, Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid illuminates how children acquire skills such as walking, talking and sharing, and how they develop, physically and emotionally, during the first 24 months of life. Gallagher pored over journal articles, most of which were published in the last decade, to find experiments that didn’t require special equipment, could be performed easily and over a short period of time, and that had a “clear takeaway” message for parents to reflect on. Finally, he tested them on his “two favourite science projects,” his own children: Joel, now four, and Ben, almost two. “That was not only really interesting in terms of the science, but also as a bonding experience,” he says.

The most fun experiment for the Gallaghers was “Using Your Head ” (he’s given them all amusing names), which examines a baby’s “motor resonance,” i.e., familiarity with a specific motor skill. Parent and baby sit across from each other. Between them is a toy or other object that can be lit by pressing on it. The parent turns the light on and off several times using only his head, with his hands in the air, by his side, or on the surface between them. The hypothesis is that, as the baby sees the movement repeated, he will eventually mimic it. “It was really funny to see the gears turning; they’re looking at me and thinking, ‘I should try that, too,’ ” recalls Gallagher, who lives in Delaware. “And both of them did.”

Other experiments demonstrate the “primitive reflexes” that babies possess. In “Happy Feet,” a baby will actually appear to “walk” when she’s held upright at the waist with her feet on the ground. This reflex fades after a few months of age, but the act returns as a voluntary behaviour later. Parents curious about how soon their child will learn to walk on their own may look to “The Retriever” experiment. At 11 months, a baby who only crawls should be watched for at least an hour while playing with toys. If he crawls to an object that is far away, gathers it in one hand, and then crawls again, it’s likely that the baby will walk within the next two months.

Other tests have practical applications for weary parents. Fussy babies may be subjected to experiments that help them settle down. “Soothing Scents” shows that crying babies are calmed when a cloth sprinkled with a few drops of breast milk is placed near their nose. Babies refusing to feed may be coaxed into opening their mouths by a parent pressing on their palms, according to “Response Under Pressure.” To encourage sharing, parents can use “Helping the Helper” to see how toddlers’ perception of a person influences their willingness to hand over a toy or other object.

Gallagher says that, in many ways, babies are conducting experiments all the time. “You can picture a baby as being thrust into this foreign country. They don’t know the language, customs or landscape, so they’re trying to figure out what everything is about,” he says. “They’re exploring with their tongues—what is this, how does it taste, can I eat it? What are the social rules that govern conversation? They are constantly observing and forming their own hypotheses, and they test them, and the firmness of the rules.” Now their parents can, too.