6 Things You May Not Know Your Baby Can Do

Every parent likes to think their baby is extraordinary, but it turns out infants have some impressive abilities beyond a knack for keeping you up all night.

Cute little baby boy, playing with abacus at home

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There is a great mind in your house, and it belongs to the family member wearing the diaper and sucking on their toes. Babies have long had a reputation as little sponges, soaking up information from the world around them. But that's only part of the story. Researchers are discovering that your little one possesses a formidable skill set and, in some cases, can pull off astonishing feats. Here are six of your baby’s abilities that we think are anything but infantile.

Sense Emotions

Infants are sensitive to emotion. "By the time newborns are just a few months old, they recognize the difference between a happy expression and a sad one," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., author of The Philosophical Baby. Around their first birthday, a child can even sense how other people feel.

But your child isn't just aware of your feelings—they actively care about them. In a 2019 study published in the British Journal of Psychology, babies as young as five months old watched two video clips. One clip depicted a square figure being greeted by a friendly circular figure, while the other showed a square figure being bullied by a circular figure. When offered the choice between the two square figures presented on a tray, the vast majority of babies chose the figure that had shown distress. The researchers concluded that the babies were showing an empathetic preference toward the bullied figure. 

Tap Their Talent: Display your feelings. Whether you're gently patting the dog or enthusiastically greeting a neighbor, your child is watching. "What you say to babies is less important than how you say it," says Dr. Gopnik. But don't expect to fool your child by saying "Yum!" as you put strained spinach to your lips: Babies can often tell when you're faking it.

Talk With Their Hands

Infants are eager to learn sign language before they begin to speak. And the benefits are huge: "Signing enables a baby to tell you what he's seeing and hearing—a plane overhead, a dog barking outside," says Parents advisor Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby Signs.

The process of learning to sign creates pathways in the brain that help your child pick up any language more easily later in life, notes Fosca Shackleton White, director of the Montessori Academy of Chicago. Plus, babies who use sign language before speaking learn to talk earlier, score higher on intelligence tests, develop a larger vocabulary, and display more self-confidence compared to their non-signing peers.

Tap Their Talent: Give your child's communication skills a head start by introducing signing as soon as they’re born. Start with these five basics: "eat," "drink," "wet," "sleep," and "more." Use them whenever you say the corresponding word out loud, then slowly expand their vocabulary over time. This video is a great place to start learning baby sign language.  

Understand Math

Babies have a basic sense of subtraction. A study performed at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev had 6-to-9-month-olds watch a puppet show with two characters. Researchers then removed one puppet and closed the curtain; when it reopened, the same puppet remained. Then they repeated the experiment and changed the ending: two puppets appeared when the curtain reopened. The babies' prolonged stares indicated they understood that two minus one doesn't equal two.

Babies also seem capable of solving problems using scientific logic. In a 2008 University of British Columbia study, 8-month-olds were shown two boxes: One had lots of red balls and a few white ones; the other had mostly white balls and only a few red. Researchers pulled five balls from each box (one red and four white in each case), showed them to the kids, and then let them peek into the boxes. The result: The children stared longer at the box containing mostly red balls, recognizing that the mostly white balls that came out of it was a statistical mismatch. "That's very sophisticated reasoning for a baby," says Dr. Gopnik.

Tap Their Talent: Research shows that your child learns math and science best through daily exploration. Provide toys that encourage creativity (like building blocks, boxes with lids, or bowls), try discovery games (such as hiding and revealing an object), and encourage your baby to observe.

Learn a Second Language

Your infant possesses the innate ability to learn a second language. That's great news: Studies show that being multilingual encourages flexible thinking, enhances memory, and boosts a child's concentration. 

Traditionally, experts have suggested waiting until age 3 to introduce a second language. But a 2017 study by an international team of researchers found that even infants can distinguish between words in different languages. The study reported that by 20 months, bilingual babies can accurately and efficiently process two different languages.

Tap Their Talent: If you or your spouse speaks a second language, use it around your child regularly. Experts believe a child needs to be exposed to a language at least 10–25% of the time to be considered bilingual, though this doesn’t dictate functional use of the language. Even if you know only English, see whether a caregiver, a close friend, or a relative can speak another language with them. Don't waste your money on a foreign-language program, though; the best way for your child to learn a second language is by hearing people around them use it.

Recognize Faces

Within their first few months, your infant will already recognize your face— which is useful since they depend on you for everything. Around 5 to 8 months, they’ll be able to differentiate between familiar people and strangers. 

A child's ability to pinpoint facial features may start to wane around 9 months. But some experts believe it doesn't have to. "Continued exposure to faces from diverse ethnic groups may extend the ability into adulthood," says Olivier Pascalis, Ph.D., a researcher at Université Pierre Mendès France, in Grenoble.

Tap Their Talent: If your own social circle doesn't provide broad enough exposure, try flipping through books (Baby Faces by Margaret Miller is a good choice) or cutting out images of varied cultures from catalogs and magazines. Helping maintain this skill will encourage your baby to become more accepting of others as they grow.

Respond to Music

Your baby was born to boogie! In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, researchers assert that “the capability of detecting beat in rhythmic sound sequences is already functional at birth,” as newborns could detect a violation of a beat. And recent research shows that babies respond to the rhythm of music by moving their arms and body.

Tap Their Talent: Parents instinctively rock infants to the beat while singing a song. Scientists think this is a crucial way babies learn about rhythm. You can help by exposing your child to a wide range of musical genres. If you're listening to your favorite song, sing along and look into your baby’s eyes. "A child responds to music most when he's sharing the experience," observes Miriam Flaherty-Willis, senior director of education at the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, in Vienna, Virginia. Use rhythm to help them learn other things too: You can make up your own lyrics or melody for teaching body parts, for example. 

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