Do Blinking, Singing Toys Really Teach Babies?

In a study by the University of Hong Kong, researchers concluded that if you're using different kinds stimuli—like sound, sight or touch—to teach your baby basic rules, those stimuli should be congruent, or related. 

Those blinking, singing, talking baby toys lining toy store shelves look cool—and, hey, awfully educational—but it turns out they may not be doing your kiddo any favors.

In a recent study involving a group of 8- to 10-month-old babies, University of Hong Kong researchers have concluded that if you're using a couple of different stimuli—like sound, sight or touch—to teach your baby basic rules, those stimuli should be congruent, or related. In other words, the picture and the sound should match up, like a giggling sound paired with a smiley face, for example. Otherwise, babies will likely be confused by the mixed message.

Don't toss out the bells-and-whistles toys just yet, though. Teaching babies using different stimuli—like pictures, songs or texture—can boost the odds that they'll grasp the lesson. But as this study found, what's more important than the number of stimuli is that they all reinforce the same message—a smiley face goes with laughter, for example, or a frown goes with crying. "I think one important thing that we have shown is, it is not always true, the more the better," explains Dr. Chia-huei Tseng, director of the Infant Research Lab at The University of Hong Kong and senior author of the study. "You need to find out whether the audio and visual components are related to each other."

The study was published online in the current issue of Developmental Science.

Additional research is needed, and cultural differences will need to be accounted for, Dr. Tseng says. Still, as she points out, "how to match stimulation from visual, audio, tactile and other sensory systems into a unified manner is the key to help our little ones fully benefit from it."

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Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on TwitterPinterest, and Google+.

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