Book Club: Experimenting with Babies

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This month, Pregnancy and Newborn‘s Book Club is focused on […]

Experimenting-with-BabiesThis month, Pregnancy and Newborn‘s Book Club is focused on scientific studies that uses your own sweet baby as the research subject. Shaun Gallagher created 50 science projects that will allow you to interact with your child and have fun doing it! These projects will show you the skills your baby has, as well as ways to help strengthen them. Pick up your copy of Experimenting with Babies, and bring playtime to a whole new level of fun!
Here’s our chat with the author:
What an exciting way for parents to interact with their children! Do you have any surprising outcomes from performing these fun science projects on your boys?
I can remember the first time I learned about the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex, which in the book is called the “fencing” reflex. Basically, at a certain point in a baby’s development, if you turn their head gently while they’re on their back, their arms will move into what looks like a fencing position. I tried it on my own son when he was a newborn, and sure enough, it worked. That was fascinating to me. In fact, I would say that in terms of surprising outcomes, I’ve often been more amazed when my boys’ behavior during the experiments matched the hypotheses, rather than when they’ve diverged. I would liken it to a magic trick: You’re more amazed when the trick works than when it doesn’t.
Two kids are the same age, but only one parent is “experimenting” with their baby. Do you believe that performing these exercises will help that child’s development?
It depends what we mean when we talk about “experimenting.” A parent may not be knowingly performing science projects on her baby, but she is nevertheless experimenting all the time. I don’t know a parent who hasn’t informally experimented with different techniques to help soothe a baby’s crying, or to help a baby learn to fall asleep on his own. That said, I think a parent who takes an interest in her baby’s development — for instance, by picking up a book like “Experimenting With Babies” and learning about the science of infant development — is probably going be the sort of person whose parenting choices are conducive to encouraging the baby’s development. Will performing the experiments in my book make a baby smarter? No, actually, and they’re not intended to. What they will do, however, is help parents better understand just how smart and marvelous these little creatures already are.
Within your research and personal experiences, is there a thin line between having fun and pushing your kids to reach certain expectations?
I think it’s definitely possible to have unrealistic expectations of what a child should be capable of at his stage of development, or to forget that children develop at different paces. That’s why, as I was putting together the 50 science projects that make up the book, I specifically avoided experiments that are about whether a baby “measures up.” The projects I chose aren’t intended to diagnose your baby with any deficiency or proficiency; for that, I recommend speaking with your pediatrician. Rather, they’re intended to help parents learn, in a hands-on sort of way, about how babies develop in their first two years, and about all of the really intriguing research that is going on in the field of child development.
I couldn’t help but chuckle a little when I started the book. How does your wife feel about you using your children as science experiments?
I think she might have been concerned if I had treated the boys as mere scientific instruments. But the reason that I’m so interested in this topic is because I recognize that my sons are not just research subjects — they’re lovable little boys who, as they became toddlers, saw the experiments as fun games to play with Daddy. That’s the cool thing about these projects: They help parents bond with their children, not only because they’re spending quality time together, but also because they’re coming to better understand how awesome their babies are.
When you were an editor, did you ever imagine that you would write a book, much less a book about experimenting with babies?
I’ve always wanted to write a book, but I never thought it was in the cards for me. I tend to write pretty concisely, and because of that, when I was a writer and editor, I sometimes struggled to hit an assigned word count. I figured that if it was difficult to churn out 2,000 words on a topic, it would be several orders of magnitude more difficult to write something of book length. But it turns out that I just needed to find the right topic and the right format. The book is broken into 50 discrete chunks, each of an undaunting length, and that made things much easier during the writing stage. Actually, even though I had previously assumed I’d never write a book, it turns out that I’ve written not one but two. When “Experimenting With Babies” was being shopped around to publishers, the publishing house that eventually snapped it up offered me not one but two book deals. They had learned that I run Correlated (, a website devoted to uncovering surprising correlations between seemingly unrelated things, and thought that it could serve as the inspiration for a fun little book of not-quite-unassailable trivia. That book comes out in July and is available for pre-order now at most online bookstores.
These are fun experiments, with extensive research behind them. Would you recommend this book to practicing speech, occupational or physical therapists?
One of the neat things about “Experimenting With Babies” is that all of the science projects in the book are based on real child-development research. Just about all of them are adapted from studies published in academic journals such as Child Development, Infancy, and Developmental Psychology. So, I’m not just pulling these experiments out of hot air; there’s real science behind every one of them. Yet while the book does have a lengthy citations section at the end, it’s not a textbook, and neither is it a book primarily targeted toward professionals. Rather, it’s written in plain English for parents who don’t have a background in child-development. So, I would say that therapists aren’t really my target audience — but I would love for them to recommend my book to the parents of the kids they work with.
Can we expect to see another book like this for ages three and older?
I’ve had people joke with me about potential sequels. Maybe “Experimenting With Preschoolers” or “Experimenting With Teenagers,” or even “Experimenting With Co-Workers.” There’s certainly enough research out there to make those sequels feasible. But one of the things that made researching and writing this book so enjoyable was being able to try the experiments on my own little guys. So I think that if I do eventually attempt to write another book in the same vein, it would be tailored to whatever age my kids are at the time.

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