The joy of infant and child research

[By: Lisanne Schröer]

As Saya describes a few weeks ago, MOTION aims at understanding how young children learn and develop through everyday interaction. Most of our research will involve testing infants and toddlers.

You might already be familiar with psychological research with adults, but infancy research may sound very interesting to you, as it is very different in several ways. I would like to share some of my experiences with infant and toddler while I was doing my bachelor and master degree. I hope that this blog will give all of you, whether you are a researcher, a parent, or just a curious folk, a better understanding of the ins and outs of baby research.

First, let me start by briefly introducing myself. I, Lisanne, am originally from the Netherlands, the land of bikes, stroopwafels, tulips, and mills. I have obtained my bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and my master’s degree in Cognitive Neuroscience in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. I became fascinated with cognitive development during infancy and toddlerhood during my internships at the Baby & Child Research Center in Nijmegen.

Exchanging the quiet town of Nijmegen for the busy city of London and my bike for a daily commute in the London underground, I am now involved in the MOTION network as a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London working with Professors Denis Mareschal and Richard Cooper. I am interested in how young children gain a high level of cognitive abilities in order to execute complex action sequences. When and how do we learn to plan and combine different behaviours to achieve one goal, and how can we learn to adjust our behaviours on each step that we can ultimately achieve the overall goal? That is very shortly my research interest.

Now, let’s get back to infant and toddler research. When I say to people that I study infant development, they usually respond ‘Babies! How cute!’ Well, they are cute indeed, but working with these cuties is actually more challenging than working with adults.

One of the most challenging tasks for us is that, since young children’s attention span is relatively short, we have to make experimental designs interesting enough for them to keep engaged. No matter how cool you think your task is, infant can be surprisingly less enthusiastic about it than you. For example, I had this really cool task in which young children could move a ball from a block onto a slope to make the ball roll down the slope. I myself was really excited to play with it, and believed it would be very entertaining for young children. However, a lot of my young participants found it more amusing to put the ball in their mouth or throw it on the floor instead. If you are interested in this study, you can find more about this experiment here.

Moreover, testing infants and children generally takes more time than testing adults. While you can expect adults to start their tasks soon after they walk through the door of the testing room, you would need extra half an hour or even an hour to make infants feel comfortable at the lab setting before starting the experiment, so that they can show their everyday behaviour in the lab room. One of our magic tricks which is commonly used and often efficient is playing with toys before the experiment.

Certain research equipment does require some preparation time (for example fNIRS or EEG, see Aude’s blog). Importantly, these equipment might be strange for the child at first. Again, entertaining the child with bubbles or video clips often helps to make them feel comfortable. Believe me, by now I am a professional bubble blowers.

If for any reason the child does not feel like doing a (super cool) experiment, that is more than fine – the kids are the King here, and we will stop the experiment. After all, our goal is to make the children happy, not to torture. The best feeling for us (as an infant researcher) is when a child is shy when coming in, but doesn’t want to leave the lab when the experiment is finished.

Furthermore, ensuring that parents also feel comfortable with their child participating in the experiment is essential. We always make sure that we take enough time to explain the goal and every part of the experiment to the parents and are always happy to answer every question they may have.

Now you may think infancy research involves a lot of challenges and thus is difficult – yes, it is indeed, but every testing session will most likely put a smile on your face, even though things are challenging and never go exactly as planned. After all, this unpredictableness is what makes every testing session unique and fascinating, and (I personally believe) more interesting than adult research.