2 Taster materials

Extract from Unit 1 of Y156 Understanding children

Babies are people too!

You will have become a student on this course for one or more reasons. You may want to learn more about children out of general interest; you may plan to work towards a formal qualification in the future; or you may have been encouraged to do the course by friends, family or an employer. You may know quite a lot about babies and children through caring for your own or other people's. In this section you will be finding out about very young babies' abilities, and the ways in which they interact with the world around them. To start you off, the following activity asks you to think about some of the commonly held beliefs about babies.

Throughout Understanding children you will be asked to pause in your reading and undertake an activity, such as the one that follows this note. Activities are not a test, but they are a central way in which distance learning works. They provide an opportunity for you to stop reading and start thinking, working things out for yourself and deciding what you believe. They are a good opportunity for you to take notes on the ‘My Thoughts’ side of your note pad, and remember that your ideas are as important as those in the course materials when you come to write your essays.

Activity 1 Babies are…

You should allow 0 hour(s), 10 minute(s).

For this first activity you should read the following comments about young babies. You may have heard them expressed by friends, colleagues, on the TV or in magazines or they may be new to you. As you read through the list tick the ones that you think are probably true, put a cross by those you disagree with, and a question mark by any you feel unsure about.

  1. Young babies can't feel pain
  2. Babies can't see or hear much when they're newborn
  3. Newborn babies just sleep all day, they don't need much attention
  4. All newborns need is to be clean and well fed
  5. A newborn baby is like a ‘blank slate’, it can't think at all
  6. Newborns can express pleasure and displeasure
  7. Newborns can't tell what's going on around them

How did you get on? In fact the only statement that really deserved a tick is number 6, all the others are either incorrect or very simplified and therefore misleading statements. In number 2, for example, babies' vision has a short range compared with an older child, but this enables them to focus on the face of the carer. The limited vision does not prevent babies from interacting or being aware of the world around them. Such beliefs in babies' limited capacity were common amongst many child development experts in the 1950s, and if parents knew different, they didn't have the authority to challenge them. These beliefs led to circumstances where babies were treated in ways that would be considered inhumane today. For example, the belief that young babies could not feel pain meant that in the past they were operated on without pain-killing anaesthetic – a practice that would now be considered abusive.

Activity 2 What are babies able to do?

You should allow 0 hour(s), 30 minute(s).

The following extract is from a book written by UK child development teachers Carolyn Meggitt and Gerald Sunderland. It summarises what the majority of babies who are less than a week old are capable of.

Read through the extract once. Then, using the list of beliefs about babies' limitations from Activity 1 above, write the point number beside any statement below which you think disproves it. We have made a start with point (1) for you:

Sensory development (this involves eyes, ears, smell, taste and touch) Babies:

Cognitive and language development (this is to do with thinking, understanding and talking)


  • are beginning to develop concepts. Concepts are abstract ideas, based in the senses and combined with growing understanding (for example, babies become aware of physical sensations such as having an empty stomach, and respond by crying; they also become aware of when they feel full and come to associate that concept with whoever and however they are fed)
  • explore using their senses and using their own activity and movement
  • make eye contact and cry to indicate need
  • respond to high pitched tones by moving their limbs
  • often synchronise actions with the sound of an adult voice, are often able to imitate, for example, copying adults who open their mouth wide or stick out their tongue.

Emotional and social development (this is sometimes referred to as social skills in older children, this refers to the way in which babies behave with other people)


  • use total body movements (their whole bodies) to express pleasure at bath time or when being fed
  • enjoy feeding and cuddling
  • often imitate facial expressions
(Meggitt and Sunderland, 2000, pp7, 10)

The evidence we will consider later in this section challenges some of these views about babies. While it is true that babies' physical capacities, life experiences and ability to do things without help are limited at this age, it has only been in the last 30 years or so that researchers and others have fully explored just how much very young babies are able to do – that they can express a range of emotions, communicate with adults in quite sophisticated ways, and play a full part in family life. Babies who need to be in incubators after birth are now given frequent contact with their carers, whereas before it was thought that they were ‘too young’ or ‘too ill’ to need stimulation and human contact. Severely disabled babies are not routinely now ‘left to die’ and can develop their own potential. The importance of human contact, love and stimulation for all babies is now well established.

From this extract we can see the range of things babies are capable of. Looking back at the questions you considered in Activity 1, you can see that babies in fact have a very sensitive skin; they are startled by sudden noises and respond to the sight of faces, light and high contrasting patterns. In fact not only do they have a responsive sense of sight and sound, but they also have a sensitive sense of smell, recognising their own mother's breast. What is also interesting is that babies are beginning to communicate and interact through facial expressions, noises and movements which are made in response to the actions of other people.

The examples in the extract above are taken from children (most likely white) brought up in UK cultural traditions. In traditions where babies are kept close to the mother all day and can feed when they need to, they may hardly cry at all. Eye contact may also not be encouraged.

So far we have been looking at what ‘most’ or ‘typical’ babies can do, but just as adults are all different, so are babies. In the next activity, you will read about the experiences of one family responding to the arrival of an individual baby into the world.