Experimenting
with
Babies

50 Amazing Science Projects

You Can Perform on Your Kid

Try This Experiment on Your Baby!

Project name:

Make 'Em Laugh

Age range:

3 to 6 months

Research area:

Cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional development

Try this simple experiment on your baby to learn about your baby's cognitive, behavioral, social, and emotional development.

Note: This experiment was originally published on the Experimenting With Babies blog on PsychologyToday.com.

The experiment:

Engage in a 10-minute unstructured play session with your baby, during which you should do whatever you normally do to make your baby laugh or smile.

The hypothesis:

Speaking in "motherese," or smiling or laughing yourself, may elicit laughter from younger infants, around 3 to 4 months old, but is less likely to get a giggle out of older infants, around 5 to 6 months old.

On the other hand, clowning -- defined as absurd nonverbal behavior, such as making odd facial expressions or sounds, or performing strange or absurd actions -- will not only be more effective at making your baby laugh than any other strategy, but also, it will grow more effective the older your baby gets.

The research:

In a 2012 study of babies between 3 and 6 months old, parents were videotaped in their homes as they attempted to make their babies laugh.

The researchers found that motherese elicited laughter or smiles in 17 percent of 3-month-olds, but that declined over time to only 10 percent of 6-month-olds. A parent's smile or laughter was infectious in 22 percent of 3-month-olds, but it also declined to only 6 percent of 6-month-olds.

Clowning, on the other hand, got laughs or smiles out of 41 percent of 3-month-olds, and that percentage grew over time to 63 percent of 6-month-olds.

The researchers noted that with age, the babies exhibited more clowning behaviors themselves, and parents' amused reactions to those behaviors appear to reinforce them.

Why, though, do parents so frequently use clowning in an attempt to make young infants laugh? After all, at least initially, infants don't know what to make of this behavior.

The researchers in the 2012 study suggest an answer. At the very least, clowning behavior is distinctly different than normal caregiving behavior, and so it is more likely to capture an infant's attention. If infants then notice that such behaviors are frequently paired with smiles and laughter, they are likely to eventually pick up on the humorous nature of the actions.

The takeaway:

In just the span of a few months, your baby is likely to develop marked sophistication in her sense of humor. It'll be a few years before she hits the standup circuit, but she's certainly starting to identify what things are funny, and she's testing them out on her favorite audience -- you.

You can help her further develop her sense of humor by regularly spending time clowning around with her. Here are a few goofy activities mentioned in the study that are likely to get a chuckle out of her:

  • Make odd body movements, such as exaggerated shoulder shrugs.
  • Make odd facial expressions, such as sticking your tongue out or puffing out your cheeks.
  • Make odd sounds, such as blowing raspberries or whistling.
  • Perform odd self-decoration, such as putting a toy on your head.
  • Perform absurd actions, such as balancing a stuffed toy on your belly.
  • Expose hidden body parts, such as your belly button.
  • Invade your baby's personal space by moving your face very close to his.
  • Destroy a construction, such as a block tower.

The sources:

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. London: Penguin Books, 1916, 1991.

Mireault, Gina; Poutre, Merlin; Sargent-Hier, Mallory; Dias, Caitlyn; Perdue, Brittany; and Myrick, Allison. "Humour Perception and Creation Between Parents and 3- to 6-month-old Infants," Infant and Child Development, 21:4(338-347), July/August 2012.

Reddy, Vasudevi. "Infant clowns: The interpersonal creation of humor in infancy, Enfance, 53:3(247-256), 2001.


Like this experiment?

Buy "Experimenting With Babies," which contains 50 other fascinating science projects you can perform on your kid. It makes a great gift for new parents!

Try This Experiment on Your Baby!

Project name:

Signs of Sympathy for Bullying Victims

Age range:

Around 10 months

Research area:

Social and emotional development

Try this simple experiment on your baby to learn about your baby's social and emotional development.

Note: This experiment was originally published on the Experimenting With Babies blog on PsychologyToday.com.

The experiment:

Prior to conducting this experiment, you'll need to print out the following two images, one depicting a blue sphere and the other depicting a yellow cube. Cut each of them along the dotted lines.

During a time when your baby is alert and not fussy, familiarize her with the following 20-second animated video by playing it for her five or six times, preferably in full-screen mode to reduce any distractions.

Next, hold up the two pictures of the objects, one in each hand, and encourage your baby to choose one of them.

The hypothesis:

Your baby is more likely to choose the yellow cube (the "victim" in the familiarization video) than the blue sphere (the "aggressor" in the familiarization video).

The research:

In the June 2013 study, preverbal 10-month-olds were familiarized with a video like the one above, in which one object appeared to be pushing or hitting another object. (In the original study, they counterbalanced colors and shapes to make sure those factors didn't influence the results.)

They were then presented with real objects resembling those depicted in the video and prompted to reach for one.

The researchers found that the babies strongly preferred the "victim" object over the "aggressor" object.

But to determine whether the babies were really exhibiting sympathy for the victim, and not just showing fear of the aggressor, they ran a related experiment in which a third "neutral" object was incorporated into the video. This object interacted with neither the victim nor the aggressor. When the babies were then given the opportunity to choose between the victim and the neutral object, they strongly preferred the victim. This suggests that the babies were demonstrating sympathy for the victim, rather than just exhibiting a fearful response to the aggressor.

So what's going on in babies' heads to trigger this sympathy for the victim?

Well, in order to identify one of the objects as the victim and the other as the aggressor, they need to understand things such as goal directedness (what is each object trying to do?) and causality. They also need to understand that the blue sphere's behavior is negative, and the researchers suspect that babies may have acquired this understanding based on parents' and siblings' reaction to hitting behavior.

One thing about this study that bears mentioning is that although the babies strongly preferred the victim when given a choice between it and the aggressor (or it and the neutral object), they didn't appear to exhibit more sophisticated sympathetic responses, such as trying to comfort the victim.

Yet even though a 10-month-old's sympathetic response may be rudimentary, the results of this study suggest that sympathy is beginning to emerge as part of their social-emotional development by this point.

The takeaway:

Even before your baby is able to speak, it appears that she's catching on to what constitutes bullying behavior, and she doesn't like it.

That doesn't necessarily mean that she'll never exhibit aggressive behavior herself, since impulse control is relatively low during the first few years of life, but it does mean that in at least a basic way, she understands that hitting and pushing are not acceptable behaviors.

As she grows older, you can help her further develop her sympathetic response to the victim by appealing to her sense of fairness (which emerges big-time in the preschool years) and by trying to help her better understand the emotional states of others using prompts such as, "How would you feel if ..."

The study:

The experiment above was adapted from:

Kanakogi Y., Okumura Y., Inoue Y., Kitazaki M., Itakura S. Rudimentary Sympathy in Preverbal Infants: Preference for Others in Distress. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65292. June 2013.

The video included in the experiment is from the same source. The images are adapted from the video.

The study and related media are distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


Like this experiment?

Buy "Experimenting With Babies," which contains 50 other fascinating science projects you can perform on your kid. It makes a great gift for new parents!

Try This Experiment on Your Baby!

Project name:

"Bat" vs. "Tab"

Age range:

14 to 16 months

Research area:

Language development

Try this simple experiment on your baby to learn about language development.

The experiment:

Conduct this experiment when your baby is 14 months old, and again at 16 months.

For this experiment, gather eight objects (or pictures of objects) that are unfamiliar to your baby.

You'll present these objects to your baby in pairs. During each presentation, show one of the objects to your baby and label it several times with one of the nonsense words from Column 1 below. Then show the other object and label it several times with one of the nonsense words from Column 2. For instance, you might say, "Look, a (label)! This is a (label). Do you see the (label)? See, I'm holding a (label)."

Table A

COLUMN 1 COLUMN 2
bode pote
boute pid

Once you've labeled each object individually, hold up both objects simultaneously and ask your baby to look at one of the objects using the label you gave it. For instance, if you're holding up the "bode" and the "pote," you might say, "Look at the pote! Where's the pote? Do you see the pote?"

Make note of whether your baby looks longer at the correct object or the other object.

Now, repeat the procedure, this time using the nonsense words below.

Table B

COLUMN 1 COLUMN 2
dawb tup
doop tib

The hypothesis:

At 14 months old, your baby will have an easier time correctly identifying the object associated with the target label (as measured by his looking times) when the words come from Table A.

But at 16 months, your baby will show no difference in his ability to look at the correct object, whether the words come from Table A or Table B.

The research:

In a March 2013 study, researchers studying language development conducted an experiment to see whether a word's phonetic structure affected babies' ability to learn the word.

First, a little linguistics lesson. There are different types of consonant sounds. Some, such as "b" or "p," are made with the lips. These are called labial consonants. Others, such as "d" or "t," are made with the front of the tongue. These are called coronal consonants.

It turns out than in English, French, and several other languages, the proportion of words that begin with a labial consonant followed by a coronal consonant (we'll call them LC words) is higher than the proportion of words that begin with a coronal consonant followed by a labial consonant (we'll call them CL words). Moreover, when you look at the first 50 or so words that babies pick up, the proportion of LC words is particularly high.

So, the researchers wanted to find out whether the fact that LC words are more common affects how easy it is for a baby to learn a new word.

In their experiment, they exposed one group of French-learning babies to LC words, such as those in Table A, and another group of French-learning babies to CL words, such as those in Table B. They then used eye-tracking equipment to measure the babies' responses when they were prompted to look at one of the two objects.

The study found that among 14-month-olds, the babies were better able to identify the correct object (as measured by looking times) when the words were LC; with 16-month-olds, however, there was no significant difference between LC and CL words.

The researchers concluded that the phonetic structure of a word can affect a baby's ability to learn that word in languages where that structure is more or less common -- but, at least in the case of LC versus CL words, the influence only comes into play in the early stages of language acquisition.

The takeaway:

While these findings are certainly important to language-development researchers who are seeking to tease out how, exactly, babies come to acquire language, it's important for parents to know that the results of this study shouldn't significantly affect how they help their children pick up new words, although it might help explain why babies pick up certain words in the order that they do.

So, if you're trying to teach your baby a CL word and she hasn't quite grasped it yet, don't worry. It may take her a little longer to acquire, but eventually, its phonetic structure will not be an impediment.

The study:

Gonzalez-Gomez, Nayeli; Poltrock, Silvana; Nazzi, Thierry. "A 'Bat' Is Easier to Learn than a 'Tab': Effects of Relative Phonotactic Frequency on Infant Word Learning," PLoS ONE 8(3): e59601, March 2013.


Like this experiment?

Buy "Experimenting With Babies," which contains 50 other fascinating science projects you can perform on your kid. It makes a great gift for new parents!

Try This Experiment on Your Baby!

Project name:

The Look Is the Hook

Age range:

13 to 15 months

Research area:

Perception, Cognitive development

Try this simple experiment on your baby to learn about perception and cognitive development.

The experiment:

Perform this experiment when your baby is between 13 and 15 months old.

For this experiment, you'll need two adults: one to participate in the experiment and one to observe it.

Have one adult sit at a table on which two similar-looking toys are placed, one to his left and one to his right, and place your baby in a high chair opposite him.

Now, you'll perform four 15-second sequences, each separated by a pause of several seconds. For each sequence, the observer should keep track of which of the two toys your baby looks at longer.

1) The adult should turn his head and gaze toward one of the toys for about 15 seconds.

2) The adult should repeat the action, gazing toward the same toy for another 15 seconds.

3) The adult should place his hand between the two toys and stare at the hand for 15 seconds.

4) The adult should exit the room, leaving the two toys undisturbed on the table.

The hypothesis:

During the first and second sequences, your baby will look longer at the toy the adult gazes toward.

During the third sequence, she will continue to look longer at the toy the adult gazed toward.

During the fourth sequence, she will look slightly longer at the other toy.

The research:

In a 2011 study, 14-month-old babies were shown video clips in which an adult gazed toward one of two toys.

Then, one group of the babies was shown a video clip in which the adult stared at her hand, rather than either of the toys, while another group was shown a video clip in the toys were present but the adult was not.

The study found that the babies in the first group looked much longer at the toy the adult had previously gazed toward, but the babies in the first group looked slightly longer at the other toy.

The study's author says the results support the idea that 14-month-olds form an association between a person and an object after having seen the person gazing at the object, because the babies preferentially looked at the object even after the person had stopped gazing at it.

The study:

Paulus, Markus. "How infants relate looker and object: evidence for a perceptual learning account of gaze following in infancy," Developmental Science 14:6:1301-1310, November 2011.


Like this experiment?

Buy "Experimenting With Babies," which contains 50 other fascinating science projects you can perform on your kid. It makes a great gift for new parents!