Your baby: The ultimate science experiment

Babies may be serious scientists, but parents can join the fun by trying some simple experiments with their kids. 

Olesya Feketa/Shutterstock

My days at the laboratory bench are over, but having a baby presented me with a prime opportunity to get back into the science game.

Even before Baby V arrived, I was already messing with the poor girl. When I was pregnant, I would hold really still, then suddenly bend my knees to see if I could make her Moro, the startle reflex in which the baby suddenly flings her arms out wide and then slowly, slowly brings them in like jazz hands. (My mom calls this the tree-hugger reflex: If a baby’s plummeting to the ground, he’d better fling those arms out to grab a branch. Though I love this explanation, I’ve seen absolutely zero scientific confirmation of it.) My Moro experiments never worked, but they may have entertained whoever happened to see me do them.

The drops weren’t all I did while pregnant either. Around 28 weeks of pregnancy, fetuses develop a fine sense of smell. I figured that if I used lemon-scented oil while pregnant, then that same smell might soothe Baby V later. A few months after Baby V was born, I held one of my hands scented with lemon oil to the left side of her head and my other unscented hand to her right (I know, bad scientist! I should have used another odor). Would she turn toward the familiar smell? No, it turned out. She would not. She just wiggled around a little bit and looked at me.

My newborn walking experiment was also a bust. When held upright over a flat surface, 3-day-old babies can have a herky-jerky walking reflex. But nope, Baby V wasn’t interested. Her tiny legs most definitely did not high-step it across the floor. I might have waited too long on this one, but in my defense, those first three days were kind of a blur.

Other ongoing attempts: I let Baby V make a mess with her food to encourage a deeper understanding of what she’s eating; every so often, I spin her around to boost her balance and coordination; and I give little massages that some researchers think might be good for her, though others point out how shoddy the evidence is. My DIY home tests aren’t legitimate experiments, I know. For one thing, without Baby V’s nonexistent identical twin, I don’t have a control group. But our forays into research keep us (me) entertained at least.

Given the lackluster results of my own home experimentation, I was reenergized when I came across Maggie Koerth-Baker’s recent review of Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid by Shaun Gallagher. I plan on refreshing my repertoire of experiments with the book, but I was also delighted to see this cheat sheet of tests in the meantime. These gems will keep us busy for a few more weeks.

But no matter how many ridiculous schemes I cook up, I’m constantly reminded that I’m the amateur scientist in the situation. Baby V is a careful and diligent observer of this world, and much of what she does is designed to test ideas about how things work. Just this morning, she was riveted by a slowly melting ice cube. So for now, I’m perfectly content to amuse myself with my little experiments while she’s busy doing the real work. 

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