Newborn babies are competent beings.

For a long time, the idea was very popular that a newborn baby was a “tabula rasa” (i.e., blank slate), on which parents and the rest of the environment write all the rules according to which the child will develop. This idea was made famous by philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) and has since being quite successful. Behavioural psychologists took this particularly seriously, with behaviourist John Watson writing in 1930: “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” According to this school of thought, how a person turns out is entirely dependent on experience (i.e. nurture), while genetics (i.e. nature) has no role to play.

Of course, we don’t think like that anymore. Any parent of two children knows that there is something in their babies’ little brains that makes each child respond to certain stimulus in a specific way. One baby likes the sound of the dishwasher, while the same sound makes her brother go hysterical. One toddler won’t go anywhere without a kiss and a cuddle, while his sister forgets to say goodbye when she is dropped off at nursery. One child adores listening to stories while her sister only thinks about building things.

In the video linked below (watch the first two minutes and last five minutes if you do not have time for more), the controversial psychologist Stephen Pinker offers a very thought-provoking and somewhat sobering take on how much in a person’s personality and behaviour is due to the environment (parenting, for instance) and how much is due to genetic predispositions (a.k.a. the nature-nurture debate).


Although we now know that babies do not come into the world with mind which is a blank-slate, many still cannot help imagining a baby’s experience as “blooming, buzzing confusion” (borrowing a very catchy phrase of the 1842-born philosopher and psychologist William James). Parents are impatient for their baby to grow up and begin “making sense”, “doing something” and “interact”.

Fair enough. It is true that newborns might seem fairly passive. If you look at a small baby lying in her cot, nothing much seems to be happening.


“If you only knew all the stuff I know!” Photo by Alessandra Gerardi

Except… look again.

Learn what to look for. Learn to read the signs. Look closer. (More on how to do this here)

A lot is happening.  An awful lot is going on in that little brain: much more than is going on in yours or mine, or even Stephen Hawkin’s (as we have discussed in a previous blogpost). And this is not only determined by genetic predispositions, but also by learning. Yes, your newborn baby has already learned a lot during her time in the womb! Some of the sensations and emotional experiences she has been exposed to during her pre-natal life have been stored in her little brain and inform the way she interacts with her environment today.

Foetuses learn from sensations

Studies on pre-natal learning and foetal memory show that babies learn from their senses while they are in the womb. They listen to and recognise sounds, and they get bored of them after a few repetitions (well, the technical term is habituated, more here). You can only get bored with an experience if you can remember you have already been through it, right?

Once they are out of the womb though, babies are not so bored with well known stimuli anymore. Maybe these stimuli provide some comfort in such a new and potentially threatening environment? This is probably why newborn babies prefer their mother’s language (the only one they have heard from the inside for the previous nine months) to any other language, they particularly enjoy listening to a musical sequence that has been repeatedly played to them in the last weeks of pregnancy, they are particularly keen on flavours of food their mother has regularly eaten during pregnancy, they’d pick their mother’s smell over any perfume (more on this here).

The learning is not only shown in preferences, but also in spontaneous behaviour: for instance, did you know that babies actually cry in an accent? Consistently with the melodic characteristics of the German vs. French language, French newborns tend to cry with rising melody patterns, whereas German newborns produce more falling melody patterns (more here).

Foetuses learn from experiences

But there is even more: Babies seem to be able to learn even form the mother’s one-off experiences. There is much indication that this is the case when it comes to trauma. A heart-breaking but poignant study was conducted after the World Trade Center Attacks on 9/11.  Seventeen Hundred women were exposed to the attacks, and many developed Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD, more on the condition here). It was shown that mothers who developed PTSD passed on to their babies a vulnerability to develop the same disorder. This means that what a child has experienced in utero affects the way she responds to the environment once she is born. As Annie Murphie suggests in the video linked below, this might be a very adaptive way of preparing the baby for the world into which she will be born (skip to minute 14 if you are short of time).


In summary, it is safe to say that a baby’s brain is anything but a “tabula rasa”, that a newborn perception is anything but a “blooming, buzzing confusion” and that your little one’s behaviour is anything but random and passive. Try to look closer, listen more carefully and pay attention to the small details. Look out for subtle signs of recognition and of preference. It will revolutionise your life: all of a sudden, you will find yourself sharing your life with a very competent being, a fantastic person who can already tell you so much of what she likes and help you solve problems together.

Enjoy discovering the wonders she is telling you about!



Illustration by Fumi Yamamoto


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