Posts Tagged ‘babies’

Photo: Greg Clarke, Flickr.
News: when humans and owls hear a new sound, their pupils dilate. Read how owl research is helping doctors identify hearing problems in babies.

Living on Earth is a wonderful radio program covering environmental news, and with the help of donors, it stuck to its mission all last year despite pandemic obstacles. In this episode, Living on Earth explains how research into owl behavior might help some newborn humans avoid developmental difficulties.

Bobby Bascomb at Living on Earth and Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Jess Burns have the story.

“BASCOMB: Newborn babies are given hearing tests shortly after they’re born. It’s important to establish they can hear properly to develop language skills, but it’s tricky to do. Babies can’t tell doctors what they are hearing. … Now it looks like researchers at the University of Oregon may have found a solution to the problem using … owls. …

“BURNS: Our story starts about 20 years ago at the University of Oregon. Neuroscientist Avinash Bala was trying to measure how well barn owls hear as a way to better understand how human brains process sound.

“BALA: We had the owl in a quiet room. We had a video camera like a security camera watching the owl.

“BURNS: While they were setting up the experiment, going in and out of the owl’s room. The odd door was slammed down the hall. Bala would drop something on a desk.

“BALA: And I realized that every time something unexpected happened, the owl’s eyes seem to get brighter.

“BURNS: They showed brighter on the video because the owl’s eyes were dilating in response to the new sound, reflecting more light back to the camera, like a cat in headlights. The experiment Bala was actually there to do wasn’t working, says Institute of neuroscience co-director Terry Takahashi.

“TAKAHASHI: Avenashi was extremely frustrated when he came up and said, ‘Hey, this doesn’t work. The only thing that happens when I play a song is the pupil dilates.’ And then all of a sudden, we all stop and go, ‘Aah wait a minute.’

“BURNS: They recognize this involuntary pupil response could be used to measure hearing in owls. And pretty soon thereafter, Bala figured out that humans have the same involuntary response to new sounds.

‘What I realized was that we could also use this in people who are unable to respond for one reason or another. And the biggest such group of people is infants. Because babies can’t tell us what they’re thinking.’

“BURNS: There are hearing tests for young children out there and in use. … But they all have different limitations says OHSU audiologist Kristy Knight.

“KNIGHT: One of the things that we really struggle with young children is knowing can they recognize the difference between sounds like else versus elf, for example. Our regular hearing tests don’t tell us that.

“BURNS: Knight is working with Bala to test a new pupil-response hearing test.”

The new hearing test helps researchers understand if a child or adult with a hearing aid is recognizing different sounds. The level of pupil dilation varies.

“BALA: It’s so reliable, and it’s so predictable. And that is what makes it so eminently usable.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

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Photo: James Glossop 
Charlotte Hoather as Uccellina in the “BambinO” production from Scottish Opera, Improbable theater company and the Manchester International Festival.

I know that babies take swimming lessons these days and yoga with Mama. I know they go to music classes (“put your instruments back in the Taster’s Choice bin before we go home”). But opera?

Well, why not? Some babies are so loud everyone says they will be opera stars when they grow up.

Michael Cooper, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote in March at about an opera actually designed for babies. “The average age at the Metropolitan Opera is about to get lower — much lower. Sitting still will not be required: Audience members will be encouraged to crawl around and interact with the singers if they like. The dress code will be so relaxed that many operagoers may opt for onesies.

“No, the barbarians are not at the gate. The Met is presenting a new opera for babies.

“The company will present 10 free performances of ‘BambinO,’ an opera for babies between 6 months old and 18 months old, from April 30 to May 5. …

“The most unusual opera, about a bird, an egg and chick, was written by the composer Lliam Paterson and developed by Scottish Opera, Improbable theater company and the Manchester International Festival. It was directed by Phelim McDermott. …

“ ‘In the Met’s never-ending quest to develop audiences of the future, we’ve decided to start at the very beginning,’ Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in a statement.

“The opera will be performed for 25 babies, who will be seated on the laps of their caregivers on benches with cushions around the perimeter of the stage area.

Changing tables and stroller parking will be provided.

“The Met’s education team will work with researchers in infant development and early childhood music education from the Rita Gold Early Childhood Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.” More at the New York Times, here.

I apologize for not posting this in time for New York readers to take babies to the opera, but you can read a thoughtful review at Broadway World:

“No one in the audience as on Facebook or Twitter during Lliam Paterson’s opera BAMBINO at the Met’s List Hall — a rare occurrence for the company these days — on Friday May 4. In fact, no one looked at a cell phone at all during the performance. And nobody fell asleep — even though the opera was written for 6-18 month-olds. …

” ‘It’s lovely to see the full range of reactions the show has received,’ says Paterson, ‘and that every little toddler is just a person — and you’re already seeing all of the characteristics that are eventually going to come out.’ ”

Let’s hope operas for babies help build audiences for the future. “Free” is definitely the way to start.

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Some initiatives that are costly up front have benefits that far outweigh those costs but don’t show up for years. Even then, people may disagree about what caused the outcomes.

One such initiative sends nurses to new mothers who are young, poor and often friendless to help ensure that their babies get a leg up in life.

At the Washington Post

“A high school senior learns that she’s pregnant — and she’s terrified. But a registered nurse comes to visit her in her home for about an hour each week during pregnancy, and every other week after birth, until the baby turns 2. The nurse advises her what to eat and not to smoke; looks around the house to advise her of any safety concerns; encourages her to read and talk to her baby; and counsels her on nutrition for herself and her baby.

“This kind of support, with trained nurses coaching low-income, first-time mothers, is among the most effective interventions ever studied. Researchers have accumulated decades of evidence from randomized controlled trials — the gold standard in social science research — following participants for up to 15 years. They have consistently found that nurse coaches reduce pregnancy complications, pre-term births, infant deaths, child abuse and injury, violent crimes and substance abuse. What’s more, nurse coaches improve language development, and over the long term, cognitive and educational outcomes.

“Nurse coaching is a vital tool that addresses both the liberal concern about income inequality and the conservative concern about inequality of opportunity. …

“Still, nurse coaching reaches only 2 to 3 percent of eligible families. Which raises the question: if it’s so successful — and people on both sides of the aisle support it — why can’t it be scaled to reach every eligible family?”

There are two stumbling blocks according to the reporters: First, funding must be cobbled together from numerous unpredictable sources; second, the costs are up front, whereas the benefits to government and society appear over time.

“If nurse coaching were fully scaled to reach every eligible family, the costs to state and federal governments would outweigh the savings for the first five years. But then the savings would start to outweigh the costs. Over 10 years, the net savings would be $2.4 billion for state governments and $816 million for the federal government.”

So the question becomes: do we have the patience? More here.

A similar initiative that Suzanne started supporting when she lived in San Francisco focuses on homeless mothers. Read about the great results of the Homeless Prenatal Program here.

Photo: iStock
When nurses coach low-income moms, their babies benefit.

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Babies can be exhausting, but they also can be relaxing. It’s relaxing to be with people who see everything as new and amazing. They may babble and bounce with wild excitement and drag you over to show you that your pocketbook is on the stairs. They are amazed!

For babies, many things of concern to grownups are nonexistent. They focus on fundamentals.

They eat when they’re hungry, they drink when they’re dry, and they sleep when they’re tired. They aren’t trying to convince you they’re cool. If you meet their needs on demand, that’s all they ask.

They can switch from wanting desperately to ravage your cellphone to forgetting all about it in an instant. They can surprise you by doing something completely random — like suddenly grabbing your legs and growling.

They don’t care if they impress big shots in mansions, office buildings or the statehouse. They don’t care if the shiny thing on your hand is a 2-carat diamond or a piece of plastic. They don’t care if your sneakers are Pumas or Schlock Box — they just like the colors and the laces. They don’t care if their stomach hangs out or if you can jump higher than they can.

And if a squirrel climbs way up high, they don’t care if they can’t catch it, they go after it anyway.


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Photo: Milla Kontkanen

Lynley Beckbridge — whose tweets I have been following since a Harvard conference on aging and design — recently tweeted this BBC story about baby boxes in Finland.

Helena Lee writes, “It’s a tradition that dates back to the 1930s and it’s designed to give all children in Finland, no matter what background they’re from, an equal start in life. The maternity package — a gift from the government — is available to all expectant mothers.

“It contains bodysuits, a sleeping bag, outdoor gear, bathing products for the baby, as well as nappies, bedding and a small mattress. With the mattress in the bottom, the box becomes a baby’s first bed. Many children, from all social backgrounds, have their first naps within the safety of the box’s four cardboard walls. …

“At 75 years old, the box is now an established part of the Finnish rite of passage towards motherhood, uniting generations of women.

“Reija Klemetti, a 49-year-old from Helsinki, remembers going to the post office to collect a box for one of her six children. …

“Her mother-in-law, aged 78, relied heavily on the box when she had the first of her four children in the 60s. At that point she had little idea what she would need, but it was all provided.

“More recently, Klemetti’s daughter Solja, aged 23, shared the sense of excitement that her mother had once experienced. …

” ‘There was a recent report saying that Finnish mums are the happiest in the world, and the box was one thing that came to my mind. We are very well taken care of,’ says [Titta Vayrynen, a 35-year-old mother with two young boys].

More here. And be sure to see this related story on customs in Nordic countries, “The babies who nap in sub-zero temperatures.”

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The Science section of the NY Times today featured some research on babies.

Sindya N. Bhanoo explains that “In Parents’ Embrace, Infants’ Heart Rates Drop.”

“New mothers quickly learn that babies quiet down when carried and rocked. Now researchers say that this calming response is actually a coordinated set of reactions, involving the nervous, motor and cardiac systems.

” ‘Dr. Kumi O. Kuroda, a neurobiologist at the Riken Brain Science Institute in Japan, led a team that used electrocardiogram measurements to monitor the heart rates of babies and mice after they were picked up and carried. Their heart rates slowed almost immediately.

“ ‘It’s very difficult for adults to relax so quickly,’ said Dr. Kuroda, whose study appears in the journal Current Biology. ‘I think it’s specific to infant physiology.’

“In the case of the mouse pups, it took only one second for the heart rate to drop. In human babies, it took about three seconds.

“The researchers worked with babies under 6 months; the response was stronger in those 3 months and younger. …

“ ‘Lions sometimes carry cubs by the mouth, and it’s known that these infants look very limp and relaxed, with their eyes closed,’ Dr. Kuroda said. ‘But nobody measured the infant response until now.’ ,,,

” ‘By the way, she added, the mother is not the only one who can have this calming effect.

“We actually also did some preliminary studies with fathers and grandmothers,’ she said. ‘And basically they can have the same effect.’ ”


Worth noting, especially considering that the same Science section of the Times had a story on how people with slower heart rates tend to live longer than peers.


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“Elizabeth S. Spelke,” writes Natalie Angier in today’s NY Times, is a “professor of psychology and a pre-eminent researcher of the basic ingredient list from which all human knowledge is constructed.” She studies babies  to learn how much knowledge humans start out with. And perhaps not surprising, she finds that babies are intensely focused on … other people.

“Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they’re cute but because they’re root. ‘I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,’ she said, ‘and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.’

“But the adult mind is far too complicated … ‘too stuffed full of facts’ to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born. …

“Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet. …

” ‘Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this? … All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!’ ”

Read more.

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Nicholas Kristof wrote recently about a new ” ‘poverty statement’ from the premier association of pediatricians, based on two decades of scientific research.” It ties early childhood stress to persistent poverty.

In his NY Times column “A Poverty Solution that Starts with a Hug,” Kristof says of stressed children, “Toxic stress might arise from parental abuse of alcohol or drugs. … It might derive from chronic neglect — a child cries without being cuddled. Affection seems to defuse toxic stress — keep those hugs and lullabies coming! — suggesting that the stress emerges when a child senses persistent threats but no protector. … The crucial period seems to be from conception through early childhood. After that, the brain is less pliable and has trouble being remolded.

“ ‘You can modify behavior later, but you can’t rewire disrupted brain circuits,’ notes Jack P. Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician who has been a leader in this field. ‘We’re beginning to get a pretty compelling biological model of why kids who have experienced adversity have trouble learning.’ ”

Lest this is striking too dark a note for Suzanne’s Mom’s Blog, I hasten to point out that identifying a problem is the first step to fixing it. As a proponent of both hugs and poverty alleviation, I was really happy to see this addressed! And Kristof’s mention of the stress hormone cortisol jumped out at me because I hadn’t heard about it until I saw the research in yesterday’s post, which suggested that a pleasant phone conversation with Mom can reduce cortisol more effectively than instant messaging with Mom. (Or whoever reduces your stress.)

Read more. And do leave comments.

(I must look up that article from a few years ago about the Indian woman who stood on a street corner in New York and gave free hugs to long lines of people craving hugs.)


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