Posted by: Ticktock | April 17, 2009

This Week in Parenting Science 4/17/09

It’s been a few good months since I posted updates on scientific studies relevant to parents.  I’ve been pretty busy with my new play that I’ve been directing.  It opens this weekend.

Exercising While Pregnant – My wife refused to give up her running routine when she was pregnant.  She studied up to determine how much she could run without harming the baby, and she made the appropriate adjustments.  Imagine the looks she got when she showed up to a 5K at seven months pregnant.  Well, according to a new study by the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, pregnant moms might have healthier babies if they hop on a treadmill every now and then.  Researchers detected more mature nervous systems and better fetal breathing in the babies of mothers who exercised compared to those of mothers who didn’t.

Home Birth Better? – It’s been debated before, most recently on an episode of The Doctors, but another study has shown that a low risk home birth is just as safe as those that are done in a hospital.  The dutch study looked at data from half a million low risk births to compare the relative safety between births at home and births at the hospital.  On the merits of the data, it seems that both choices are equally valid.

Of course, hospitals should be the default choice whenever there are high risks such as a breached baby, a need for induction, or known abnormalities.  I also condemn the choice of home birth based on an irrational fear of modern medicine.

Bright Bilingual Babies? – Good grief.  How does a bilingual household have any effect on 7 month old babies.  They can’t even talk yet.  You have to determine their intelligence with movements of the eye.  Despite my incredulity, one study claims that they’ve discovered eye-tracking difference in babies who are raised in bilingual households.

Why not choose children who are talking?  What sort of logic inspires a scientist to even hypothesize that any information gathered from non-verbal babies can be linked to the languages spoken by their families?  It doesn’t make sense, but if you want to use Spanish and French flash cards on your baby, then be my guest.



  1. I love the home birth study – but others have shown home births to be SAFER, not just as safe AS.

    I know I for one had four babies that didn’t so much as require an aspirin, let alone a $5,000 bill for services “rendered”. I won’t have #5 anywhere near a medical facility, I can assure you of that!

  2. This has nothing to do with flashcards and everything to do with hearing more than one language on a regular basis. The ability to understand and process language begins long before the baby starts to talk.

  3. These are 7 month olds. They wouldn’t know an “adios” from a “goodbye”. The study is useless in my opinion. I’m certain that baby foreign language classes will use it for their advertising – so it does have something to do with flash cards in the fact that it will be misinterpreted in such a way.

  4. Science has been manipulating statistics for as long as there’s BEEN statistics. Just like the whole “back to sleep” thing – they never (or rarely) did autopsies before the big campaign in 1993, and since the campaign – and frequent autopsies – they say they’ve reduced SIDS over 50%. Yet infant mortality hasn’t decreased – the only thing that’s changed is the REASONS for crib death (tracheal abnormalities, suffocation, heart defects, etc. etc.) – but ask anyone if forcing their baby to back sleep reduces SIDS and they’ll blindly nod their heads yes!

    Sorry, that’s a personal rant… but a great example of a manipulated statistical “fact”.

  5. The bilingualism thing is far from rubbish. It’s well established in developmental linguistics that kids are tuning in to the sounds of their mother Tongue very early on. Generally speaking, perception by far precedes production. You would be amazed at the very fine distinctions babies can make. Would you like me to try and get the study for you so that you can arrive at a more informed assessment of its value? And let me reiterate that flash cards and classes are nothing like the deep immersion of true early bilingualism

    • I’m certain that you are right that some babies can tune into the sounds of language, and that some understand more than they can speak, but I don’t see how those two facts are relevant to the conclusions of the study – that babies in bilingual families show signs of higher intelligence. How can a 7 month old process bilingual input into anything meaningful? And even if this study is valid under those terms, which I still doubt, why should it matter? I’m certain that there is more to this study than what is being interpreted.

      I would be happy to change my mind if you could convince me. Based on the info that I have now, the premise of this study seems illogical.

  6. The study does not say the children are made “more intelligent”. It says they perform better on one specific cognitive test. If bilingual immersion can impact how a baby performs a seemingly unrelated cognitive task, that tells us there is something connecting the two, and that is worth knowing more about.

    If someone wants to use this study to sell flashcards, it’s not because the study is flawed or has some subversive intent.

  7. Performing better on a cognitive test is considered a “sign” of higher intelligence. I do not claim that the study’s intent was subversive. My opinion is that they are attributing the results to bilingual immersion, and that there is probably an explanation that makes more logical sense.

  8. Studies such as this do not make broad claims about intelligence, understanding that it is not simply one thing. The media would certainly not hesitate to make those kinds of claims.

    I’ve not reviewed the statistical analysis used to isolate bilingual households as the causative factor, so I’ll withhold judgment on that claim. Certainly, the social sciences tend to be generous to themselves when it comes to this kind of regression analysis. But they *do* make an effort before making a claim. I do not doubt that there is a correlation, though, and enough of a chance of causation to look at other vectors in studying the phenomenon.

  9. Your hostility towards the bilingual baby study is odd and surprising.

    I’m not sure why you dismiss a 7-month-old’s language acquisition so quickly. Babies at seven months are at least starting to babble, if they haven’t been doing so for potentially several months already. There’s your first clue. When they babble they’re trying to imitate the language sounds around them. In a bilingual household, there are two sets of sounds to imitate. If you’re like most people, you can identify at least a couple languages you don’t speak because of how they sound. Spanish doesn’t sound like French, English, or German, and yes, even a 7-month-old can pick up on that. The sounds Mommy makes are different than the sounds Daddy makes, or the sounds at home are different than the sounds at daycare, etc.

    I also don’t think the result they found is so wildly different from bilingualism that we have to assume there’s another explanation. I don’t think it’s a big stretch at all to say that babies in a bilingual household have already picked up on the fact that there are two ways to communicate the same thing, which is essentially what the study shows.

    As for why it matters, seriously?! I’m surprised you’d have to ask. This is science, dear. We go out and find stuff out about the world. It’s part of the world, so we want to know how it works. Who knows what future research could use information like this to do something way cooler? The logic that inspires research like this DOES make sense to someone who has actually learned something about infant language acquisition. Honestly, it didn’t come out of no where. Linguists have been looking at this stuff for a long, long time.

  10. I’ve had a 7 month old, I’ve been around other 7 month olds, so I’m quick to dismiss their processing of the subtleties of language because I have experience with that age. More to the point, an eye tracking cognitive test has nothing to do with languages.

    The study does not show that there are “two ways of saying the same thing”. The results from the study have nothing to do with bilingualism, save for the interpretation, which I dispute, justifiably or not.

    I’m familiar with science. As I remember, studies don’t just materialize in a vacuum. They have to withstand criticism, which I’m offering, admittedly as an amateur, but I’ve made my case anyway. Science does not get a free pass just by it’s merits alone. There is such a thing as junk science, and yes, even bad science. I’m calling this study the former or the latter until convinced otherwise. You disagree, and your arguments haven’t convinced me. No big deal.

  11. We’re not talking about anything “subtle.” The sounds that a language uses are pretty obvious, and we know that 7-month-olds hear it because they babble differently depending on the language they hear. I have a 7-month-old and have been around other 7-month-olds, and I’ll go out on a limb here and say that out of the babies we’ve known, I’ve probably known more in bilingual families, both because of my studies in the field of linguistics, and my life as an expatriate who mingles frequently with other expatriates. There’s also plenty of research done on how much language infants can understand before they speak.

    I am aware that junk/bad science exists, but there I was explicitly responding to your comments about how pointless it was to even do a study like this, NOT to criticism such as whether or not the study was performed properly or the results interpreted sensibly. I do not believe that the fact that someone did a study to try to figure out if these particular groups have a difference in this particular area makes it junk science out of hand. It may be a crappy study, but I haven’t seen the whole thing and I don’t know. It still seems odd to me that someone who admittedly doesn’t know anything about prior research into first language acquisition would automatically dismiss the entire study as crap based on such little information about it. I certainly never said science gets a free pass, but I guess you can put words in my mouth since it’s your blog.

  12. If your field is linguistics, then I don’t feel like I have any justification to continue this debate. I’ve admitted my own ignorance on the subject, and even pointed out my own fallacious reasoning (incredulity) in the post.

    One example of junk science is research that grabs headlines without really helping humanity. This study is grabbing headlines like “bilingual babies get an early edge”, but when I compare those headlines to equivalent relevant research, I see a discrepancy.

    I said that the study is “useless” not “pointless”. I understand that a goal of science is that we should always strive to learn about our world, but I don’t think that this research will be helpful to anyone.

    Your words are speaking fine for themselves. If you want to argue that I’ve misinterpreted your statement “this is science, dear. We go out and find stuff out about the world.”, then I will let you do that. To me, it came off as a patronizing defense of any and all scientific research, but I don’t really like being called “dear” by strangers.

    I dismissed the study as “illogical” and added that it “doesn’t make any sense”. Of course it makes sense to a linguist who is around bilingual babies. You probably see them track visual rewards quicker than monolingual babies all the time. You probably also know the value of such information, too.

    To me, it’s an odd thing to study. To you, it makes perfect sense, and justifiably so, since you are a professional on the subject and I am not. I concede.

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