Baby Flashcards? Babies Learn Best From Responsive Social Experience

Clever experiments are demonstrating how babies and young children are more intelligent than many previously thought. For example, they pick the nice instead of the mean puppet.

With only 25% of adult brain size at full-term birth, 90% reached by age 5, children really “are for learning.” According to one estimate (Zero-to-Three), at peak in early childhood, 250,000 neuronal connections occur every second in a child’s brain. What babies experience literally builds their brains.

But development does not happen willy-nilly. To establish systems optimally, particular experiences are needed at the right time—those that match with the baby’s maturational schedule (Gottlieb, 1991). Though parents might want to rush to teach reading to their babies with flashcards and videos, evolution set up an infant’s maturational schedule for a different kind of learning.

As Dr. Alison Gopnik points out, broad receptive attention (right-brain dominant processing) allows for greater learning and perception (McGilchrist, 2009). In fact, right hemisphere brain development is primary in the first three years of life and involves the socio-emotional regulatory systems (e.g., vagus nerve) governed by that hemisphere (Chiron et al., 1997; Schore, 1996). What builds these systems, which underlie emotional intelligence? Not word learning or videos. Instead, what promotes social-emotional development is extensive positive social experiences—chains of reciprocal (back-and-forth) communication (including repairing dysregulated social communication; Tronick, 2007). This means that parents (and kids) need to get away from the smart phone and talk to each other. Deep immersion in the family’s active social life is fundamental for optimal emotional and intellectual development (Trevarthen, 2005, 2006). Further, it is during these early years that prefrontal executive controls of emotion systems are initiated, again, through appropriate social experiences (Schore, 2013). Since babies have little self-regulation at birth, caregivers must help them stay calm as these capacities grow and mature (Porges, 2011).

Optimal baby development doesn’t “just happen” but requires an evolved (extra-genetic) “nest” that matches up with the maturational schedule of the infant (Gottlieb, 1991). Again, evolution did not come up with flashcards or videos. The “nest” for babies initially evolved more than 30 million years ago with the social mammals, and was slightly modified over human evolution (Konner, 2010). The characteristics of the human nest have been noted worldwide among nomadic foraging groups who represent our ancestral lifestyle (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005). The human nest includes (1) soothing perinatal experiences (no trauma or separation from mother); (2) extensive breastfeeding (its thousands of ingredients build all systems of the body, including the immune system which requires healthy gut bacteria); (3) nearly constant touch (regulating body systems and keeping growth on track); (4) responsiveness and prevention of distress (keeping the baby calm as system thresholds are established); (5) free play (ready to play from birth, children need rough-and-tumble play through childhood for executive control, happiness and social skill development); (6) multiple, close, adult caregivers (building trust in the community and openness to others); (7) social support and a positive social climate (fostering positive emotions) (Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino et al., 2014). All these characteristics promote healthy brain and body development in mammals and humans, and their lack contribute to worse social and health outcomes over a lifetime. In fact, the nest may be critical in setting up learning capacities generally.

My lab calls this nest of practices the Evolved Developmental Niche and we have been studying how they are related to child development. In two published papers, we find that all these practices are related to three-year-olds’ moral development (self-regulation, empathy, conscience), even after controlling for the responsiveness, age, income and educationof the mother (Narvaez, Gleason et al., 2013Narvaez, Wang et al., 2013). That means that when baby doesn’t have a proper nest, she may never develop to her fullest capacities.

Just recently we examined in two samples the relation between adult reports of their own childhood Evolved Developmental Niche (EDN; with a 15-item measure) and found relations to mental and physical health (Narvaez, Lawrence et al., 2013). That is, more EDN-consistent care correlated with better physical health, less anxiety and depression.  EDN-consistent care was also correlated with secure attachment, an indicator of emotional intelligence. We also find relations of EDN-consistent experience to morality. Adults who reported more EDN-consistent experience also reported that they are more oriented to compassionate and reflective moralities. In contrast, those with EDN-inconsistent care are more oriented to self-protective morality (dominance and aggressive relations with others). This is presumed due mostly to stress-reactivity from the poor early nest of care (Narvaez, 2014).

The current emphasis on early cognitive development by researchers, parents and policy makers may need to be balanced with an understanding of baby development, the baby’s maturational schedule and early right-hemisphere development.

All Americans under 50, regardless of background, have a health disadvantage compared to those in 16 other advanced nations according to a 2013 National Research Council report. As children’s wellbeing has declined in recent decades, perhaps adults should be attending to ensuring babies receive EDN-consistent care. Look around. It seems that few babies receive this type of care these days.

The Evolved Developmental Niche was designed by evolution—i.e., it was adaptive for our ancestors. The EDN appears to optimize development, secure attachment, and biopsychosocial wellbeing, all critical for developing adept citizens with good health and sociomoral skills (Narvaez, Panksepp et al., 2013). In societies that practice the EDN, not only are children and adults happier, they seem to be wiser and brighter (Diamond, 2013Narvaez, 2013). And, adults appear to retain that ‘greater consciousness’ that babies demonstrate in clever experiments.


Chiron, J.I., Nabbout, R., Lounes, R., Syrota, A., & Dulac, O. (1997). The right brain hemisphere is dominant in human infants. Brain, 120, 1057-1065.

Diamond, J. (2013). The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? New York: Viking Press.

Gottlieb, G. (1991). Experiential canalization of behavioral development: Theory. Developmental Psychology, 27, 4-13.

Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

Konner, M. (2010). The evolution of childhood: Relationships, emotion, mind. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

National Research Council (2013). U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Narvaez, D. (forthcoming in 2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: W.W. Norton.

Narvaez, D. (2013). Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become  “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672).  New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial DevelopmentEarly Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003

Narvaez, D., Lawrence, A., Cheng, A., & Wang, L. (October, 2013). Adult reports of parenting they received relates to different types of moral orientations. Association for Moral Education, Montreal. Manuscript in preparation.

Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (2013).Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., Valentino, K., Fuentes, A., McKenna, J., & Gray, P. (forthcoming in 2014). Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing and Social Wellbeing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L.  (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-oldsEuropean Journal of Developmental Psychology10(2), 106-127.

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Trevarthen, C. (2005). Stepping away from the mirror: Pride and shame in adventures of companionship”—Reflections on the nature and emotional needs of infant intersubjectivity. In C.S. Carter, L. Ahnert, K.E. Grossmann, S.B., Hrdy, M.E. Lamb, S.W. Porges, & N. Sachser (Eds.),Attachment and bonding: A new synthesis (pp. 55-84). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Trevarthen, C. (2006). First things first: infants make good use of the sympathetic rhythm of imitation, without reason or language. Journal of Child Psychotherapy 31(1), 91-113.

Tronick, E. (2007). The neurobehavioral and social-emotional development of infants and children. New York: W.W. Norton.

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Schore, A. N. (2013). The art and science of psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton.

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