Sticky Mittens

Sticky Mittens Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Although it might look like babies do nothing but coo and cry, they're actually building an immense foundation of knowledge about their world. In this Science Update, you'll hear about new research that shows they might benefit from a little help.


Studying infants in a sticky situation. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

At about five months of age, babies begin seeking out and picking up objects around them. Before that, they do little more than flail their arms around. Psychologist Amy Needham, at Duke University, wanted to know what would happen if three month olds were given the power to pick things up. So she got some tiny velcro mittens and little Velcro-covered toys and gave them to the parents of infants.


And we asked parents to go home with these mittens and the objects and to play with their infants and these objects and mittens once a day for about ten minutes a day for about two weeks.

When the parents brought their babies back to the lab, the researchers presented the infants with new objects. The team found that the babies explored them more than babies who had not had the mittens.


And so overall, we conclude that the infants who had this experience became more engaged in objects as a result of this experience with these mittens that allowed them to interact with objects in a way that they wouldn't normally be able to at this point in development.

The researchers want to understand how even very early experiences can affect learning. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

The results of this experiment may seem obvious. Some babies were given sticky mittens that made it easier for them to pick things up; later, those babies explored and looked at objects more than those who didn't get the mittens. Did we really need a scientific study by a major university to prove that outcome?

Well, yes. That's because the study helps separate mental and physical development. Past research has shown that babies of this age (2-3 months) can swipe at objects, but they can't pick them up and explore them thoroughly. But was this simply because the babies lacked the motor skills to pick up objects, or were their minds also not ready to take an interest in objects in their environment?

This study suggests the former, although the details are still unclear. For example, the results could mean that babies are mentally prepared to explore objects before their bodies are ready to do so, and that babies normally spend a few months just waiting for their bodies to catch up to their minds. Or, it could mean that the mental ability to explore objects directly depends on physical activity—in other words, that the ability to pick up objects stimulates mental development, and the mittens "jump-started" this developmental process. It's also not clear if the mittens themselves were responsible for the babies' increased interest in objects, or if the babies simply benefited from extra parental attention and encouragement that they got while they were learning how to use the mittens at home.

Needham and her colleagues plan further studies to answer some of these questions. Their main interest is in defining the connection between physical and mental development, not in finding ways to train developmentally advanced "super-babies." As for the mittens, they may soon be sold as toys for the under-6-months set.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What was the purpose of the "sticky mittens" experiment?
  2. What does the experiment show? What does it leave unanswered?
  3. Suppose babies who had been given the mittens showed no more interest in exploring objects than other babies who had not. What are some possible explanations for this result?
  4. Review the questions mentioned in the third paragraph, above. Briefly describe an experiment that might help answer one of them.

For Educators

Your Baby's Development, by BabyCenter, provides a lot of information about child development, including a milestone chart for 1 to 6 months of age.

Zero to Three is a resource for information about the first three years of a child's development.

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