Can you really assess the braininess of an infant who can't yet say "Dada," much less answer questions or fill in the circles on a test booklet? Experts say yes. "Babies are very good at taking in information and remembering it, which is the basis of intelligence,? says Joseph Fagan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland. From a baby's earliest days, there are signs of what's going on in his rapidly developing brain, and scientists have come up with new ways to measure it.
For example, Dr. Fagan tested how well babies are able to absorb info by letting them look at a picture of a face for several seconds. A few minutes later, he showed them the same picture next to one they hadn't seen before. Babies who quickly turned their eyes from the familiar photo to the new one were considered to be more intelligent. When Dr. Fagan gave those same children standard IQ tests years later, their scores were remarkably consistent with his initial assessments. "We can't predict who will go to Harvard one day, but we can tell if a baby's cognitive skills are developing normally," says Dr. Fagan.
Researchers are also looking at other ways to measure infant intelligence -- how easily they learn to complete simple tasks, such as kicking a mobile, the rate at which they become bored with sounds they've heard before, and even their basic understanding of solids and liquids.
Outside the science lab, there is a simple clue to look for as a parent: your child's ability to stick with a task, like grabbing for a rattle, until he masters it. "Babies who can focus on one thing for a little while without getting bored or giving up have the kind of persistence that will help them excel in school and in life," says Dr. Dunlap.
What you can do now: Assume your baby is a budding genius and treat him as such by playing hand and foot games with accompanying verbal routines, such as This Little Piggy and pat-a-cake (these will help him anticipate what's about to happen), reading books with lots of repeating phrases (which will boost his sound and word recognition), and providing plenty of stimulation. There's no need to spend a dime on brain-building DVDs. Simply chatting to your child as you go about your day and pointing out the new things you see together will help get his neurons firing.
How you talk to your child is as important as what you say. Research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, found that babies learn language earlier when parents speak in a high-pitched voice and use short sentences. Also give your child visual cues, such as holding a fist near your mouth to ask if he wants a bottle. "Studies show that when you use hand gestures or baby sign language, you're planting the seeds of language," says Dr. Borba.
Whether your baby is agreeable or easily frustrated, a firstborn or a younger child, or fast or slow to master new tasks, his traits are simply tantalizing hints about the child he might eventually become. "A kid's life is like a painting," says Dr. Thompson. "The initial brushstrokes begin to define it, but by the time he's in grade school, there are so many different strokes that you can't even see the early ones anymore." And whatever style that work of art turns out to be, it will be a beautiful surprise.