You may have come across the theory that children develop in mental leaps or the so-called Wonder Weeks. While the idea sounds convincing, scientific evidence to validate this claim has not been conclusive.
What are mental leaps
The theory explains how babies pass through several phases of mental development, often referred to as “mental leaps”, which help them develop an awareness of the world around them. Going by the theory, certain “difficult” behaviors that babies are expressing — say crying a lot — are manifestations of a developmental phase the child is going through at that moment.
Where does the theory come from
A few decades ago, this theory was propagated by a Dutch couple named Hetty van de Rijt and Frans Plooj, after researching the developmental patterns in chimpanzees.
What is the theory’s main idea
The theory argues that the reason behind your baby’s crankiness is that they’re going through a mental developmental stage, in which your baby develops a new understanding of the environment. The strangeness makes them regress and get frustrated — thus, they act miserable, clingy, and irritable.
In total, there are at least 10 such mental leaps from the age of five weeks until 20 months old. The so-called Wonder Weeks schedule shows what to expect from your child each week.
Why do many parents like the idea of mental leaps
All of us look for patterns to bring structure in a chaotic world – humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, goes the saying. New parents, especially, face a lot of uncertainty, and if their little one is going through a tough time, they want answers that can give them an explanation — for example, if a child has a fever, they must be teething. The idea of mental leaps following a fixed schedule gives them predictable and acceptable explanations of their baby’s mind-throbbing behaviors that science or your local doctor might otherwise can’t explain. But do brains really grow this way?
What science says about mental leaps
Our lack of knowledge is the main problem in arguing that children’s development follows a fixed schedule and behavior of crankiness is the result of them undergoing a developmental leap. Any serious scientist would point to all the other things affecting a baby’s body or mind than the explanation of a mental leap. For example, a baby may cry because of tiredness, hunger, stress, and other less explicit reasons such as not being able to communicate or physical pains such as teething or tummy ache.
Fact is, we can’t ask a baby, which is why we often make assumptions based on the current visible development such as crawling or walking to justify an unexplainable behavior that came out of the blue. Again, there are even wider discrepancies as to when babies achieve certain milestones — for example, some start walking at 10 month, others at 18.
Another criticism for mental leaps comes from the advancement of brain research. When Wonder Weeks was introduced around 40 years ago, our understanding of the brain was very limited, and many people thought that the brain grows like any other part of the body, like your hand.
Today, modern neuroscience shows that a child’s brain actually develops from their interactions with the environment. For example, if a mother interacts with her baby, new synapses grow inside the baby’s brain causing brain structure to change. On the other hand, if the baby stays in a dark room with no interaction from others at all, the child’s brain will not make any new experiences and doesn’t create new neural connections. This phenomenon is also known as brain plasticity and is a key reason why parents want to talk, play and interact with young children as much as possible. The idea of fixed mental leaps disregards the flexibility of brain development and the influence of the environment.
Disregarding science, you might still enjoy following the Wonder Weeks, and you might even feel that they work. But similar to a weekly horoscope, they are best taken with a pinch of salt.