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Will listening to Mozart make your baby smarter? How about playing them some educational DVDs? Turns out, there might be a bit more to helping your baby become the next Einstein.

Join Justin in an endless pursuit of the truth in this all-new episode of Misconceptions. Today we break down some myths and misconceptions about our favorite tiny humans, babies.


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All newborns do is eat, poop, and cry oceans of tears.

That sentiment isn’t quite true for a number of reasons—we’ll get into the surprisingly rich interior lives of babies in a little bit—but maybe the most unexpected reason it’s false is that newborns don’t actually cry tears at all. Most babies don’t shed tears in the first few weeks of their young lives.

The lacrimal glands generally start ramping up tear production around 2 weeks into a baby’s life, and it’s typical for visible tears not to be noticeable until weeks or even months after that. By the way, if you’ve never heard the term “lacrimal glands” before, you might be surprised to learn that the tear ducts are not responsible for tear production. Misconception within a misconception!

Dare I say... a mis-inception. ... Ehh nevermind, that sounded cooler in my head. Let’s just run the intro.

Welcome to Misconceptions. I’m your host Justin Dodd, and I’m a baby. That’s a little bonus misconception for you.

I’m actually a grown man, but all of the adorable home video footage of a baby you're about to see is, in fact, me. Justin! There’s a lot of misinformation out there about babies, and analyzing some of these misconceptions can shed light on humans of all ages.

From anatomy to psychology to commerce, we can learn a lot about ourselves by identifying what we might have wrong on the subject of infants. A number of influential thinkers, from John Locke to David Hume, have put forth some version of the “tabula rasa,” or blank slate, theory of knowledge. Locke asked readers to think of the mind’s starting place as resembling “white paper, void of all characters.” And while that was more a point of departure for an analysis of how we acquire knowledge than an actual proposal for how a baby’s mind functions, I think it’s fair to say that many of us do look at babies as essentially blank slates.

I mean, to what extent do babies know anything? And how would we even know if they did? A few developments in the last half century or so have helped scientists start to explore what babies may know.

First, scientists like Robert Fantz realized they could use the time a baby spends looking at something as a rough indicator of interest or surprise. While that might seem like a pretty crude method, the results gleaned from measuring the duration of an infant’s gaze in various situations have often proven repeatable in different labs at different times. 4-day old infants, for example, were shown to have a preference for the language their mother speaks. That’s not proof a baby “knows” the language, of course, but it does seem to suggest some form of knowledge or awareness of what they’ve been exposed to, perhaps even in the womb.

Newer technologies like functional near infrared spectroscopy allow scientists to analyze babies’ brains. It works by shining near infrared light at a baby’s skull, which lets researchers measure levels of blood oxygen in the brain, and by extension which areas are experiencing more activity at different times. This technology has shown, for example, that four-to-six-month old babies at risk for autism exhibit less brain response to social cues than a low-risk group of peers.

Insights like that could one day lead to earlier detection of a range of neurological differences. The same technology was used on newborns less than a week old, with results suggesting that even babies that young experience more brain activity in specific regions of the brain when looking at “dynamic social stimuli,” such as a person’s face playing peekaboo, compared to nonsocial biological motion like a moving arm. The increased brain activity occurs in the same region of the brain observed in adults engaged in social interaction, suggesting that the ability to engage with social stimuli is, if not innate, something that begins developing incredibly early in a person’s life.

Scientists are now trying to use functional MRI’s to get even more insights into the brains of babies, but even with the technology we have available you can read about a dizzying number of ways babies could be said to “know” things we might not expect. A study published in PLOS Biology in 2008 showed that even 3 month old infants may have a sense of numerosity—when shown a sequence of images of 4 dots in all different configurations, for example, the babies showed evidence of boredom, but their apparent interest perked up when shown a different image containing 8 dots. Other studies have even suggested that babies can do a kind of rudimentary math.

Five month old babies were shown two individual objects “added” together one at a time behind a screen. When the screen was pulled away, babies tended to look longer if one or three objects were present, instead of the expected two. This might indicate surprise at the “wrong” number of objects being revealed.

One more study on the topic of what babies have going on in those soft little heads of theirs: a team of researchers tried to look into whether babies can make moral judgments of any sort. Here’s how they set up the experiment: eight month old babies were shown a little skit, basically, where one character, let’s call him... Justin...acted in a nice way, helping another character complete a task.

Then two new characters were brought in, one who rewarded friendly Justin and one who punished him. The babies preferred the rewarding character, which was expected, as babies generally show a preference for nice behavior. Here’s where it gets interesting, though: In a different set-up, instead of a helper, the researchers brought in a hindering character in place of friendly Justin.

Let’s call him.... Christopher Giampaolo, the bully from my 4th grade social studies class. After Christopher hindered a different character, two new characters were brought in, one who punished Christopher, and one who rewarded him.

This time, the babies preferred the punisher. It’s impossible to read their minds, but it sure seems like they had some instinctive sense that bad behavior should be punished and good behavior should be rewarded. I’m not saying we should start installing baby judges in our nation’s courtrooms, but I am saying that I have a copyright application into the WGA-East for a sitcom called Baby Judge.

Have you ever heard that a pregnant woman’s belly can reveal her child’s sex? Supposedly a high baby bulge indicates a girl, while a low belly is proof of a boy. Some say this line of thinking can be traced back to English folklore: the reasoning rested on a belief that boys are more independent and could therefore stay low in the abdomen, while girls needed more protection.

Obviously that reasoning doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny: whatever the sex, unborn babies are not renowned for their independence, and the idea that sitting lower in the abdomen is the fetal equivalent of getting an entry-level job and your own apartment doesn’t really make any sense, no matter how fun it is to think about a baby eating pizza on a couch made of milk crates. (Note to self: baby judge has pizza-loving roommate named Booger?) Even if the rationale is off, though, could there be something to this folk wisdom? After all, boys do tend to be larger than girls. Maybe that affects how they sit in the womb?

Not so. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University published a study in Birth showing no relationship between abdomen shape and gender. First pregnancies generally sit higher up, but that’s because the mother’s abdominal wall tends to get stretched out with each pregnancy, regardless of the sex of the baby.

Other supposed indicators of the baby’s sex, like their in utero heart rate, also lack empirical support. For most people who want to know their baby’s sex, an ultrasound is gonna be your best bet. While we’re in the womb, let’s put on some Mozart.

Will the refined compositions make your baby smarter? In 1998 the governor of Georgia started a program to give new mothers classical music CDs. In Florida, day care centers were required to play classical musical for their charges.

These interventions can probably be traced to the so-called “Mozart effect,” which developed from a 1993 paper published by Frances Rauscher in the journal Nature. Strangely, that study was done on college kids, not babies, and it specifically examined whether listening to classical music before several reasoning tasks improved performance on those tasks. There was an improvement, but the idea that those findings can be translated to babies or general educational achievement throughout life were far outside the scope of that one paper.

When psychologist Christopher Chabris analyzed 16 studies related to the Mozart effect, he found only a minor positive impact from music, and only on that same specific type of reasoning task. A different meta-analysis was done by a team of scientists in Germany, and found the effect to be nonexistent. Even Rauscher was clear, saying “ … there is no compelling evidence that children who listen to classical music are going to have any improvement in cognitive abilities.” That doesn’t mean there’s any harm in playing classical music for your baby, before or after birth.

A study from the Institut Marques in Barcelona suggested that babies in the womb are stimulated by classical music. Scientists created a special intravaginal speaker, and then played music through the speaker for fetuses. They used ultrasound scans to look for movement, and concluded that a statistically significant percentage of fetuses responded to the music, compared to nonmusical vibrations or music played through headphones placed on the mothers’ abdomens.

Fair warning though, I checked with Best Buy and they are all out of intravaginal speakers. Ah, Black Friday! Capitalism!

An intriguing study from Israeli researchers indicated that babies might find Mozart’s music calming, leading to lower energy expenditure and a desirable increase in rate of weight gain for premature babies (though the study didn’t pit Mozart’s music up against anything else for comparison). If you like The Marriage of Figaro, by all means, listen to it with your baby. You can even put a little earbud on your belly button if that makes you happy.

Just don’t think you’re creating a baby genius, or a Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2, which is the actual, terrible name of the sequel to 1999’s seminal talking baby film, Baby Geniuses. Speaking of baby geniuses: do educational DVDs make babies smart? With names like “Baby Einstein” and “Your Baby Can Read,” surely all that stands between your child and precocious brilliance is actually being able to find a DVD player in 2020, right?

Not so much. The Baby Einstein videos were wildly successful, as long as the goal was to sell lots of DVDs. A 2003 study estimated that a third of all American babies between 6 and 24 months old had one of the videos.

In terms of making babies smarter, though, the evidence is severely lacking. A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine showed that babies exposed to the Baby Wordsworth DVDs, which purported to help babies learn up to 30 words, demonstrated no enhanced language acquisition compared to a control group left unexposed to the supposedly educational content. In fact, infants who watched the content at a young age, around 12 months old, actually had lower language scores than those not exposed to the DVD at all, though they didn’t suggest a cause-and-effect relationship.

A study at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education demonstrated that the Your Baby Can Read DVDs were quite successful in convincing parents of their efficacy—they generally reported a belief that their children were, in fact, learning vocabulary that outpaced a control group. But in all other measures the study examined, the DVD watchers and the control group showed no meaningful differences. After The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood made a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission in 2006, Baby Einstein dropped the word educational from its marketing, an apparent admission that they could not substantiate the claim.

Not long after, under threat of a class-action lawsuit, Disney—who at this point owned the Baby Einstein brand—announced it would offer refunds for up to four DVDs per household. While the promise of a DVD that can make your baby smarter has obvious appeal, the truth is that the most experts in the field would prescribe a much lower-tech regimen to help your baby learn: reading, playing, and talking with your child. Selling parents dubious ways of giving their baby a leg up is big business.

Another example is walkers, those little devices on wheels that can support baby mobility before they can stand and walk on their own. The idea is that you can put the baby in the devices, and while it holds them up they can develop stronger legs, allowing them to walk faster and avoid the embarrassment of being the only baby at daycare without defined calf muscles. …OK, that last part isn’t true. But neither is the rest, in reality.

Walkers can actually delay independent walking. It takes the job of balancing out of a baby’s hands, which is a necessary skill to develop in order to walk on your own. And it can mean less time spent crawling, which is an essential step on the road to walking.

Beyond those drawbacks, walkers can actually be quite dangerous. From 1990 to 2014, over two hundred thousand babies in the US went to the emergency room for walker-related injuries. Children can fall down, get their fingers caught, and—perhaps because they can’t see the ground below them—accidentally fall down stairs and other high-risk areas.

While safety improvements have been made in the devices, 2,000 toddlers still went to the ER for injuries related to walkers in 2014. Canada has actually banned their sale, and the American Academy of Pediatrics pushes for the same ban here in the States. There is one big caveat to this misconception, though: for babies with developmental issues of physical disabilities, support tools with wheels can absolutely be a useful tool.

Those devices are generally called gait trainers, and they don’t look much like the walkers we’re discussing. For typically developing infants, though, you’re better off plopping your baby on the floor next to something like a couch that they can use to pull themself up until they get the hang of walking on their own. To all the babies out there watching, hey, you got this.

Walking is like, riding a bike. Which… you don’t know how to do either. Or speak language probably so, uh, nevermind.

If you have an idea for a future episode of misconceptions, leave it in the comments below. And to stay up to date with all things Mental Floss, hit that subscribe button. Goo-goo-gaa-gaa.