To help you sort through the hype, we talked to experts on some of the latest claims and found the real ways to help your baby reach his potential.
The Claim: Playing classical music for your baby will boost his IQ.
Truth: Music will certainly enrich your child's life, but whether your baby listens to Beethoven or Beyonce, it's not going to put him on the fast track to an Ivy League school. That myth stems from a 1993 study at the University of California, Irvine: Researchers conducted an experiment in which college students listened to a Mozart sonata, a relaxation tape, or nothing at all, and then immediately took a test of spatial reasoning. Those who listened to Mozart scored the highest. "It was a neat study, but it was used in all the wrong ways," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn.
For one thing, the findings were used to sell a slew of classical-music-for-babies CDs with the promise that they'd make your baby brighter. But in fact, there was never any conclusive research proving that classical music had brain-boosting benefits for young children. There is some well-regarded research showing that 4- to 6-year-old kids who learn to play a musical instrument tend to be stronger students because the training improves how the brain gets wired for memory and attention. But as far as raising their IQ? Not so much.
The Bottom Line: If you want your child to reap developmental benefits from music, you're better off teaching him piano when he's older than forcing him to listen to Mozart now.
The Claim: Learning sign language can help a baby talk earlier.
The Truth: There's no doubt that learning to sign can help a baby communicate her needs more easily. And the largest study to date, conducted by the mother of the baby-sign movement, Linda Acredolo, PhD, a Parents advisor and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis, did find that babies who learned to sign spoke on average three or four months sooner than those who didn't. But there are some skeptics. "When parents are signing to their children, they're also talking to their children," says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. "They're communicating in two different ways. That's not to say the effect isn't real, but is it just the signing -- or is it a positive effect of the extra attention? We just can't say." Moreover, there's no scientific evidence at all that early talking, walking, or reading translates into long-term success in life.
The Bottom Line: There's no drawback to teaching a baby to sign -- and lots of potential benefits -- so get those hands moving and keep up a steady stream of conversation.
The Claim: Skipping the walker will get your baby on her feet faster.
The Truth: At least one study found this to be the case: A 1999 report in the Journal of Developmental Behavior concluded that for every 24 hours of baby-walker use, there was a delay of 3.3 days of walking alone and a 3.7-day delay in standing alone. But lagging development is hardly the biggest concern about using a walker. "The real issue is that kids can fall down stairs or bump into something," says David Perlmutter, MD, author of Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten.
In 1992, 25,700 babies and toddlers were treated in emergency rooms in the U.S. from baby-walker injuries. That number dramatically decreased to 3,200 in 2003 as a result of a new industry standard (a walker now must be either too wide to fit through a typical door or have a gripping mechanism to stop the walker at the edge of a step), but they still pose safety risks.
The Bottom Line: Ditch the walker and let your child learn to stand on his own two feet.
The Claim: Breast milk is best for babies.
The Truth: Study after study has documented that breast milk can boost a baby's immune system and IQ and lower his risk for diabetes, obesity, even ADHD. So it's no wonder that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months after birth.
But not everyone is convinced that mother's milk is a panacea. "Most benefits associated with breastfeeding probably have as much to do with the child's environment and the family's socioeconomic status," says Parents advisor Darshak Sanghavi, MD, author of A Map of the Child: A Pediatrician's Tour of the Body. "They're not due to some magical substance in breast milk."
The Bottom Line: Women who want to should certainly breastfeed, but don't feel guilty if you can't.
The Claim: Feeding a baby formula that contains DHA will raise a child's IQ.
The Truth: Though some studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids (including DHA) can improve intelligence and visual development in babies born prematurely, no one's been able to document the same effects in healthy, full-term infants, says Dr. Sanghavi. In other words, there's no hard evidence that using formula with added DHA -- or boosting the omega-3 acids in your diet (found in foods like salmon and walnuts) if you breastfeed -- makes a big difference. These formulas are also more expensive, which can be tough if you're on a budget.
The Bottom Line: Springing for the DHA-enriched formula is certainly not going to hurt your baby, but may not help much either. If you can't afford the extra cost, don't stress about it. But continue to prioritize good nutrition once your baby begins solids.
The Claim: Going to daycare will lead to problems in school.
The Truth: Even after dozens of studies, the jury's still out on what effects (if any) daycare has on a child's development. The latest report to garner the big headlines was a long-term study done by The National Institute of Early Child Care and Human Development that found that kids who had spent more time in childcare centers had slightly higher rates of behavior problems than children who didn't. But the difference between these two groups was so tiny that the researchers themselves dismissed the finding as insignificant. What's more, earlier studies found that kids develop more self-control, a greater sense of independence, and better social skills when they spend time away from the home. "At this point, the research is inconclusive," says Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, in England, and author of Paranoid Parenting. "It's difficult to prove a direct relationship because a family's socioeconomic situation, lifestyle, and other factors come into play. The fact is, children manage to do pretty well in both circumstances."
The Bottom Line: Lose the guilt over daycare. Whatever is best for your family is what's going to be best for your child. As long as she receives plenty of attention and stimulation, everything will turn out fine.
Too Much TV
The Claim: Babies who watch TV will have attention deficit disorder.
The Truth: There's some evidence that watching television is linked to inattention. Researchers at the University of Washington reported that kids who are couch potatoes between ages 1 and 3 are more likely to have attention problems by age 7. But a subsequent study by scientists at Texas Tech disputed those findings and concluded there was no correlation at all. "We need lots more research to know for sure," says Dr. Perlmutter.
Still, there's enough evidence about the other harmful effects of television that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping children under the age of 2 away from the tube entirely. "Babies and toddlers don't realize that TV isn't reality," explains Dr. Perlmutter. Even more troublesome is the fact that watching television keeps kids from participating in other, more beneficial activities. "When kids are in front of a TV, they aren't playing or socializing," he says. "They're gaining weight, increasing their risk for obesity and diabetes. And they're not learning how to interact with other children."
The Bottom Line: Go easy on the cartoons and put more emphasis on play to help your kids reach their potential.
Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the August 2007 issue of Parents magazine.