Sunday, June 26, 2022

Are Babies Underestimated?

How much is impossible for young children, as opposed to just believed to be?

My baby, who is currently 6 weeks old, has on several occasions made hand movements that vaguely resemble signs. Several times she's made a movement that could be FOOD/EAT or HUNGRY. (More likely hungry, because I've signed that more in her presence.) And just today, she made a motion that could've been the sign MILK, also a sign I use frequently when communicating with her*.

In each case, when I responded as if the gesture was communicative, she reacted in the manner that would be expected if she was making a request. In other words, she seemed like she was signing to request milk, I gave her milk, she drank it and seemed happy.

But she's 6 weeks old! The earliest estimate I've seen for when a baby exposed to sign-supplemented speech might start to sign is 6 months, not 6 weeks. She should be still at least five months away from her first signs, right? And most likely more.

And of course there are alternate explanations. Maybe she's just randomly flailing. The gesture that could've been HUNGRY or FOOD/EAT is very similar to a common instinctive response to hunger in newborns - trying to suck on their hands. This is a behaviour my baby has also shown.

It's also possible that she's started hand babbling in imitation of my signing, but with no real communicative intent. She does like to imitate us, within her ability to do so. She'd be early for hand babbling - the VCSL says about 25% of 4 month olds can do it - but that's less remarkable than actual first signs.

Or perhaps she's been operantly conditioned, unintentionally, to associate hand movements with getting fed, even though she doesn't yet understand that specific hand movements have specific meanings. Certainly, I haven't noticed her appearing to sign in any other context than requesting food. Then again, there's nothing she's as urgently motivated to communicate about as that, and it's also the context I've ended up most consistently signing to her in, so it wouldn't be surprising for that to be her first signed communication function anyway.

And all this has me wondering - how do we know that it's impossible for a one month old to use linguistic communication? We just know it, right? And that means that if a one month old shows behaviour that, in an older child, would be taken as linguistic communication, it's interpreted differently because of the child's age.

But a lot of people "just know" that children don't even begin to develop bowel and bladder control until 18 months, and yet, in many cultures the average age at completing toilet training is younger than that. I've had my share of incredulity at telling people that I started potty training my child at 3 weeks, because so many people see potty training as a process that requires a mobile, verbal child who meets a set of "readiness criteria". 

Incidentally, I know fully continent disabled adults who don't meet the standard toilet training readiness criteria. Especially the ones related to walking and self-dressing. I even knew someone who had poorer motor skills as an adult than my baby does at one month, and yet was fully continent. Obviously, she needed help with the process of going to the bathroom, but she didn't need diapers.

I sought out Mary Ainsworth's book Infancy in Uganda because of her later advancements in the field of attachment theory, which built on her experience in Uganda. But in reading the book, I was struck not by the attachment behaviour (which was basically the same as how babies I've known in Canada acted at the same ages) but by the children's motor development.

You see, Ugandan babies, at least at the time of her study, regularly reached certain motor milestones far younger than the norms in Westernized countries full of European-descended people. This phenomenon has also been observed in Kenyan infants.

Another example is reading. I'm not trying to teach my baby to read, currently, but I have been considering it. The argument I've seen for it argues that sight word recognition is just as possible for young children as recognizing spoken words, provided that they are regularly exposed to text that is actually large enough for them to read with their immature eyes, and presented in real-life communicative contexts. I don't know if that's true. But I do know that, like toilet training, reading is often stated to require prerequisite skills that many people I know apparently didn't actually need.

Of course, disabled people are different from small children. Disabled people often have skill scatter, with some skills way ahead of others, so what they can do doesn't necessarily reflect on the abilities of nondisabled children who are similar in some of their abilities. However, they are informative about what really is or isn't a prerequisite, and that raises questions about nondisabled children who lack the same prerequisites.

And in general, I think people underestimate both how much variation there is in children's abilities, and how much the cultural context can alter early development - even when it doesn't have similar effects on later development (after all, there doesn't seem to be any lasting difference between children potty trained at different ages once they've all completed the process).

There's also a lot of people who clutch at theorized negative impacts of various forms of precocious development. I think this is mostly because they're defensive about their own children being slower than someone else's child, especially if that might be related to parenting choices. Even if the parents of the precocious child aren't in any way trying to claim superiority, some people will automatically react as if they are.

So, is my one month old actually signing? Maybe. I think there's reason to doubt it beyond just the widespread belief that language is impossible for such a young child. But I do think that we should evaluate her behaviour for itself, instead of presupposing what she's doing based on what children her age are widely believed to be capable of. And I certainly don't see any way that responding to hand gestures that might be requesting milk by giving her milk and talking about it could possibly harm her. Even if she's not actually signing yet, that response would help her learn to do so eventually.

* A typical commentary from me would be the following, spoken with the capitalized words signed as well: "Are you HUNGRY? Do you want MILK?" (Sometimes I'll also sign WANT.) Soon afterwards, I generally put the bottle to her mouth and see if she'll drink from it.


Blogger Adelaide Dupont said...

Congratulations Ettina and Baby!

I know that babies between 3 and 8 weeks [2 months] really start to negotiate their feeding schedules and interaction with a caring parent.


#badtheorybadtherapy [which is the paper I read somewhere in April 2021].

And, yes, I would say that babies are regularly underestimated. [especially at probably the age your baby is now and for a few weeks before and after].

A blogging friend talked about their favourite foods which were warm and cold.

Also - the elimination reflexes! The closer or further that they are...

Interesting to read about Kenyan and Ugandan babies.

Motor development is so much the first emphasis - especially SEARCHING AND EXPLORING.

I believe babies will do anything to explore their environment.

4:13 AM  

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