Baby Brain Power: How Much Do Newborns Really Know?


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When you bring your newborn home for the first time, it can be pretty scary. This tiny little creature is a mystery — and you’re completely in charge of her well-being. Communication seems out of the question. After all, she can’t talk and doesn’t even seem to realize you’re even in the room with her.

But take heart. Pediatricians and researchers say newborns and very young children actually can understand, sense and respond to much more than adults may realize. And that means you can start fostering a strong relationship from the very day you meet your new baby.

Dr. Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, a pediatrician in Chapel Hill, points out that very early on, infants have the ability to interact based on basic perceptions. “They can recognize faces very early on,” she says. “They’re born with billions of neurons that immediately begin connecting as they grow.”

Clarke-Pearson says when parents come in to see her with their baby, she’ll often point this out. “I’ll coo at the baby and say, ‘See how she’s looking at me? She’s only two weeks old and she can already tell I’m different from you!’”

Budding Einstein

But facial recognition is just the tip of what infants can comprehend, according to Elizabeth Brannon, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Brannon says over the last five decades, experts have discovered that even in the first year of life, infants are extremely aware of the world around them.

“Every parent knows if you’re trying to keep a baby entertained, you might do something like shake a rattle for them to get their attention focused on that,” she says. “But then you find the baby gets bored, and what do you do? You find something else to show her to get her attention again.”

That doesn’t show that she’s not thinking — just the opposite. When that first rattle stops getting your baby’s attention, Brannon explains, it’s because your baby has studied it, comprehended it and is ready to explore something new. That’s showing that her mind is able to process information, make sense of it and file it away, ready for more input.

Babies can understand more than just a toy rattling in front of their face. Brannon cites a study during which researchers showed babies photos of different cats. The babies would study each picture with interest. But after the third or fourth picture of a cat, Brannon says, the baby would grow bored and look away or start fussing. Then, researchers would hold up a photo of a dog, and the baby’s interest would return.

“This shows even very young babies can differentiate between categories,” Brannon says, even something as similar as a dog and cat. After all, they both have four legs and fur. But the babies in the study could tell something was different between them.

“They also have abstract ideas about numbers,” Brannon says. When babies were shown images consisting of groups of eight objects, for example, they lost interest after viewing a series of photos with the same number of objects. But when those babies were shown an image with 16 objects? “They immediately showed more interest again,” Brannon says, indicating that babies can comprehend abstract concepts.

Emotional Awareness

Mother of three Lena Dyhrberg, a family health nurse for three-and-a-half decades and author of “Born Wise: New Information That Will Change Your View on Infants Forever,” believes newborns and very young children have a greater emotional awareness than adults sometimes acknowledge, too.

“Your child is born with a very fine intuition,” Dyhrberg says. “He feels everything around him.” So babies immediately have an awareness of the world that includes perceiving his parents’ emotions. If you’re feeling down one day, Dyhrberg says, you might find your baby to be fussy or crying that day, too. But when you’re feeling relaxed and comfortable, your baby will often respond in a similar way. Dyhrberg says he’s picking up on your signals and responding to them in a kind of emotional communication between you.

Basic Conversations

Experts say you can help nurture your child’s natural awareness every day. Around nine months of age, Brannon says, babies start showing “joint attention.” This means she’ll follow your gaze and even go so far as to point at what you’re looking at. “These are clues that the baby is beginning to pay attention to something that’s interesting to you,” Brannon says.

This is your opportunity to help build a connection between you and your baby and develop her future vocabulary, while also teaching her critical developmental skills that will help her interact with others in the future.

“When your baby points at something, you can respond by labeling it,” Brannon says.

So, if your baby is suddenly attracted to a bird at the bird feeder, you might say, “Oh, you see the bird! That’s a pretty blue bird, isn’t it?”

And while it’s perfectly OK to narrate your day to your baby to help her learn language and interaction skills by saying, “Let’s put this box of cereal in the cart,” or “Listen! You can hear the dog barking,” Brannon says research backs that parents who let infants and young children direct that line of narration themselves end up helping their child foster and refine language development even more. So, if you observe your child and see her attention is on that box of cereal on the shelf, you can say, “Oh, that’s a big box of cereal, isn’t it? It has a horse on the box!”

By letting your child lead the “conversation,” you’re talking with him rather than at him, even though he doesn’t have verbal skills yet. You’ll be helping build those connections in his brain, strengthening the bond between the two of you, and setting him on the best possible path for future emotional and intellectual growth.

Making that connection is what’s critical, Clarke-Pearson says. “I was at the park and saw parents on their phones, completely ignoring their little children,” she says. “It was a missed opportunity for both parent and child!”

Dyhrberg agrees. “Talk with your baby,” she says. “He understands you more than you think.”

Kathleen M. Reilly is a writer and mom in the Triangle. Visit her online at kathleenreilly.com.

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Calendar

December 2019

Wear your favorite holiday attire and dine with Santa Claus. Enjoy a delicious brunch, stories and crafts, and take pictures with the jolly man from the North Pole. 

Cost: $10/child. Free for ages 2 and younger

Where:
Joyner Park Community Center
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Girls ages 5-12 take their favorite doll and have a creative time together preparing for the holidays. Register by emailing llpolkhouse2@gmail.com.

Cost: $22/attendee, $20/sister

Where:
Historic Polk House
537 N. Blount St.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Telephone: 919-676-6368
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See dancers and a guitarist from Flamenco Carolina perform a Spanish style of music and dance.

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Ebeneezer Scrooge was visited by three spirits, but what about the next Christmas? With heartwarming excitement, discover how the Cratchit family has fared in the year that has passed since old...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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The Durham Medical Orchestra performs with special guest Joseph Alessi, principal trombone, New York Philharmonic.

Cost: Free

Where:
Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University
1336 Campus Dr.
Durham, NC  27705
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As a Christmas gift to our community and surrounding area, Wake Forest Presbyterian Church delivers the true Christmas story in a stirring virtual “walk” through Bethlehem to the stable...

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
12605 Capital Blvd
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Sponsor: Wake Forest Presbyterian Church
Telephone: 919-556-7777
Contact Name: Meghan Reynolds
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Fun for the entire family, enjoy this wonderful, witty retelling of a classic fairy-tale. With a score consisting of well-known pop songs, follow Snow White and her Seven Dwarves as they try to...

Cost: $10-$60/person

Where:
Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
2 East South Street
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts
Telephone: 919-996-8700
Contact Name: Blake Jones
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The choir presents its 49th performance on Handel's "Messiah."

Cost: Free

Where:
White Plains United Methodist Church
313 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27513
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The first day of winter is right around the corner! Help us welcome the season by making a snow globe to take home. We will bring the materials if you bring the imagination! For all ages (adult...

Cost: For all ages (adult accompaniment required for all children); FREE. Registration

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850

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Children will enjoy this wonderful book written by John Denver reminding us not to forget about the wildlife this holiday season. We will make a craft then take a walk to look for our wildlife...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Join RTOOT as it performs the music of great Italian composers as well as beloved Christmas classics. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $9/adult, $3 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Dan the Animal Man brings some of his animals from his vast collection to entertain all ages. 

Cost: $3/person

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Help find candy canes hidden in Bond Park before the Grinch turns them green. Ages 6-12. Registration required online. Choose course #127871. 

Cost: $10/child

Where:
Bond Park
801 High House Rd.
Cary, NC
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Get into the holiday spirit by decorating cooking, making a craft and enjoying a holiday children's show.

Cost: Free

Where:
Century Center
100 N. Greensboro St.
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Website »

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The Wake Forest Abilities Choir will present an evening of holiday music under the direction of director.

Cost: Free

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Website »

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Celebrate pecans at the State Farmers Market.

Cost: Free

Where:
State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Join us to learn about how Habitat for Humanity helps build houses, hear a Christmas tale and then build a graham cracker house of your own. Call to, 919-245-2532. Best for ages 4 and up with a...

Cost: free

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
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Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
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Is there a man in the moon, and is the moon made of cheese? Sip on some hot cocoa and listen to some of the stories people have told about the moon and find out if there is truth to them. Then...

Cost: For all ages; FREE. Registration is required for everyone, and adult accompanime

Where:
Crowder County Park
4709 Ten-Ten Rd
Apex, NC  27529
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Telephone: 919-662-2850
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Discover family traditions from North Carolina and around the globe. Create art, enjoy free access to Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism, and have a special visit with Santa.

Cost: Free

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Art East Building and Museum Plaza
Raleigh, NC


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Bundle up and enjoy an evening around the campfire learning about creatures of the night and listen to Native American tales about some of our favorite nocturnal animals. Roast marshmallows and go...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Kids ages 5-12 enjoy indoor activities while parents enjoy a night out. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Wear white clothing and play games, tumble and dance. Enjoy pizza, drinks and more. Ages 5-10. Registration required online. Choose course #127487.

Cost: $18/child; $28 for two children per family

Where:
Middle Creek Community Center
125 Middle Creek Ave.
Apex, NC  27539
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Friday, December 13, 6:00pm, at both the Millbrook and Wake Forest Campuses. Put on your Christmas jammies, grab a blanket and come out for a  festive night to watch the classic animated...

Cost: Free

Where:
Crossroads Fellowship
2721 E Millbrook Road
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Crossroads Fellowship
Telephone: 919-981-0222
Contact Name: Lorraine Entwisle
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Have some fun and make something great at the Clay studio (and parents can sneak away and grab a bite or do some shopping at Northgate Mall). Each kid will complete and paint a piece of pottery...

Cost: $18 per child per workshop

Where:
1058 West Club Blvd
Durham, NC  27701
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Telephone: 919-560-2726
Contact Name: Lauren Tannenbaum
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Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Sing along with the band as they perform holiday favorites of Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter solstice and more. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Cary Senior Center
120 Maury O'Dell Place
, NC  27513
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Celebrate the love and joy that this season brings by creating art inspired by a Christmas tree. Register online. Choose course #126761.

Cost: $32/resident, $42/nonresident

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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Website »

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Give rugby a try. Take part in tag rugby pick-up games every Saturday morning at Baileywick Road Park, near the Second Shelter.  No experience necessary. All ages. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Baileywick Road Park
9501 Baileywick Rd
Second Shelter Field
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Sponsor: Raleigh Redhawks Rugby
Contact Name: denise travis
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Our Reindeer Romp is open to the entire community and our Girls on the Run families. So join us! Celebrate as nearly 1,000 girls reach their end-of-season goals – the finish line is only the...

Cost: $30 - $35

Where:
Koka Booth Amphitheater
8003 Regency Pkwy
Cary, NC  27518
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Sponsor: Girls on the Run of the Triangle
Telephone: 919-401-6307
Contact Name: Jamie Botta
Website »

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Ages 5-12 make a picture frame for the holidays. Snack provided. Register online. 

Cost: $30/resident, $45/nonresident

Where:
Halle Cultural Arts Center
237 N. Salem St.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Website »

More information

Ages 1-5 and caregiver delight in the discoveries of nature. Register online. 

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Travel with us to Puerto Rico with books, games and arts and crafts!  Join the staff of ISLA (Immersion for Spanish Language Acquisition) for a fun filled hour! Best for ages 3 and up with a...

Cost: Free Gratis

Where:
Orange County Main Library
137 W Margaret Ln
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Sponsor: Orange County Public Library
Telephone: 919-245-2539
Contact Name: Libbie Hough
Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

One ticket admits the entire family to decorate a special gingerbread house. Supplies provided. Workshops available at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Allergy-free workshop available at 11 a.m....

Cost: $40

Where:
Family Preschool
4907 Garrett Rd
Durham, NC  27707
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Sponsor: Family Preschool
Telephone: 919-402-1500
Contact Name: Sue Henson
Website »

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Family Wildlife Series: Holiday Habitat Helpers Saturday, December 14, 2-3 Attract winter wildlife to your backyard by providing or improving their habitat.  Create simple outdoor decorations...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Embark on a wild ride with favorite Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and many others in this fun-filled getaway featuring unexpected hijinks and character interaction. Purchase tickets...

Cost: $15 and up

Where:
PNC Arena
1400 Edwards Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

More information

Join us as we watch for meteors during the Gemenids Meteor Shower. Local astronomers will help us observe these shooting stars and other phenomena in the night sky. As a bonus we may see or hear...

Cost: Free

Where:
American Tobacco Trail
1309 New Hill-Olive Chapel Rd.
Apex, NC  27502
View map »


Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park and the American Tobacco Trail
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
Website »

More information

Favorite Christmas songs are presented in authentic Nashville country style with dazzling guitars and fiddles along with soaring harmonies. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: $25/person

Where:
Wake Forest Renaissance Centre
405 S. Brooks St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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See the choir perform beloved Christmas songs with guest vocal group AVANTE. Purchase tickets online. 

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Cary Arts Center
101 Dry Ave.
Cary, NC  27511
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