Can you predict your baby's personality?

26 June 2015

Interview with

Dr Angelica Ronald, Birkbeck University

Newborn babies might not seem to do much - eat, sleep, cry, and generally make A newborn babya mess - yet their shiny little eyes might be giving away some clues as to how they'll behave when they grow up, according to new research led by Angelica Ronald at Birkbeck University of London. Kat Arney caught up with her to get the low-down from the nursery.

Angelica - We know as adults that we all differ between one another and that's a healthy variation. Someone might be a racing car driver because they've got really quick responses and very fast visual attention. Someone else might choose to work in a museum restoring paintings and really having a sort of long attention span. You know, that's all healthy variation between people. We don't know anything really about where that variation comes from earlier on in development. And so, we were looking at new-borns to see if they differed between one another in terms of their visual attention. We didn't know what we would find because there hadn't been any studies like this.

Kat - Tell me a bit more about the study and the participants in your study.

Angelica - Yes. So, we worked with a researcher in northern Italy who has expertise in understanding and studying new-borns. It was based in our hospital there, just typical mums having their babies, healthy babies, and they would come into a room next door to where the babies were born, and have a look at some objects on the screen, so very non-invasive. And we've got about 80 babies who did that who participated in that way and then we followed them up. My researcher actually had a motorbike and he cycled around northern Italy visiting these families who were very good-natured and took part in this research. We asked the parents about the children's behaviour once they've grown up. One was level of activity. So, some children as we know are very, very active and some are less active. There's lots of variation between children. Also, we're interested in something called assurgency which relates to children being quite impulsive, quite extrovert, outgoing. We're also interested in typical types of behaviour problems like having difficulties with your peers, having conduct problems, and so on.

Kat - And so, what did you find? Is there a sign that when a baby is just a couple of days old about what they're going to become?

Angelica - Well, it's not predictive. It's not a one-to-one mapping. We're not going to start telling mothers what their babies will be like. But there was significant relationship between how babies looked at objects and their behaviour later on. It didn't explain all of their behaviour later on, but it was one of the little risk factors as it were or one type of way of predicting children's behaviour. What we found was that the new-borns who were spending longer looking at any particular object, they had fewer behaviour problems and they were less active and less extrovert whereas the babies who at average tended to flit around the screen were likely to be a bit more active and a bit more extrovert, but also have a few more behaviour problems. So, there's pluses and minuses on both sides.

Kat - Would there be any kind of interventions or any benefit to actually identify children in this way?

Angelica - Well, our study is really very the first of its kind to look at the links between differences in new-born's attention and later, behaviour problems. So, we definitely need a lot more research. There is some evidence that for some children who might be at risk of developmental conditions like autism and ADHD, the earlier the intervention, the better. But we don't know whether it's appropriate to intervene at the point of being a new-born. And so, for most children, this study is just about normal variation, the wealth of rich individual differences between people and children and babies.

Kat - I'm sure many of our listeners might have babies or might be expecting a new-born. Is this the kind of thing that they'll be scrutinising their baby for and saying, "Oh, it's going to be like this. It's going to be like that."

Angelica - I don't expect that this is something one can observe in a new-born one's self. It was a case of using video-coded data and then measuring that data. It's not something that sort of one can easily see with the naked eye. In fact, I'm expecting a baby as well and I'm not planning to pick apart its visual attention when it's born at all. I'm just going to enjoy my new baby.

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