Baby Development: Your 9-Month-Old

4 min read

Here's my month 9 caution: Don't worry if you are "stimulating" your baby enough to ensure they'll be smart as a whip and academically successful.

I'll bet good money that you have hung a nice black and white, round mobile above your baby's crib. On the advice of experts, you did it to "stimulate visual development." This popular (and hugely profitable) mobile is based on actual science. As we discussed previously, babies do like to gaze at sharp contrasts of dark and light. Perhaps your child has indeed stared wondrously at the mobile and you have been reassured that his visual system has been properly stimulated. Another job well done.

The good news: the mobile has done no harm. The bad news: it hasn't done a bit of good. Your baby's ordinary environment provides plenty to look at, more than enough to "stimulate" the visual system.

The whole fascinating process of brain development has rightly captured everyone's imagination. However, I'm sorry to report that we professionals have let you down by perpetuating myths that are unsupported by the research. Myths such as:

  • All of the important parts of our personality and character are laid down in the critical first years. As Rob Reiner famously said: "After 3 years, you're toast."
  • If a little stimulation is good, a lot is better. The more stimulation a brain gets (like your fancy mobile), the smarter it will be.

This notion of "infant determinism" -- that we are the slaves of what happened to us in the first years -- is misguided on all levels. The capacity to learn, the capacity to repair, the capacity to evolve, is with us all of our lives. The child who has had early bad experiences is by no means doomed to a life of misery as a loving, caring environment will serve to overcome most challenges. Of course, the early years are important, but so too are the middle years, and so too the adolescent years. You don't get a pass after three years, what happens in all childhood counts, albeit in different ways.

This emphasis on infant determinism has put some conscientious parents over the edge. After all, if every little part of your relationship is of earthshaking importance, for example if not being emotionally available to meet your baby's every need 24/7 will cause long term emotional damage, if being an imperfect parent will mean your little one will be toast by age 3, who wouldn't be a wreck about it? (This is why, while I don't object if some parents want to practice it, I think the practice of "attachment parenting" has done a real disservice to parents by implying there are dire consequences to your baby if you don't practice it, which is patently untrue.)

The "ordinary expectable environment" provided by the "good enough parent" (i.e. the environment provided by almost all parents) contains more than enough stimulation to promote maximal brain capacity. Short-term tricks , like playing Mozart in the newborn period or using baby sign language with your infant for a few months, aren't going to make any difference unless they are continued for much of childhood. There, alas, are no developmental immunizations nor shortcuts or magic that will turn your little one into something far greater than intended. Remember, Einstein did not have the benefit of Baby Einstein, and he turned out pretty smart.

Aside from extra stimulation being unnecessary, I worry it can cause well-meaning parents to take a few wrong turns:

  • The idea that your child is somehow incomplete and you must fill in the holes with tricks and toys and videos and tapes.
  • The competitive aspect of it all: each parent silently comparing their child to all the others and worrying if their child seems to be falling behind in the competition to be there firstest with the mostest. In fact, whether early milestones are met sooner or later has very little bearing on long-term competencies.

The mistaken underemphasis on emotional development. I would say far more important than cognitive stimulation and being a brainiac are the enduring emotional bonds forged during this time. If a parent believes it's better for the baby to sit and watch a stimulating video than to interact with a real and caring human, that's a huge miscalculation and a big loss

If you want to stimulate your baby's abilities over and above the ordinary expectable environment, be my guest. But know we are talking about exposure that must continue for years and years -- there are no shortcuts. If you want your baby to grow up bilingual (which is a great idea), know that your baby will need to be exposed to the language for most of childhood and that having a Spanish speaking nanny for only two years isn't going to do it.

But mostly, as a parent, I'd much rather you spent more time thinking about your child's emotional well-being than intellectual one. The world will generally take care of the latter, but it's your incalculably important love that transforms the former.