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Exploring the rich inner life of children

2013-10-21

Small children have a great deal to say, even before they can talk. Gustaf Gredebäck researches in how they see themselves and their surroundings.

As a young researcher Gustaf Gredebäck did not initially see the appeal of studying babies. However, the subject seized him as he realised that the research provides answers to basic questions about how humans are shaped and his interest was aroused. He now leads the work at the successful Uppsala child and infant laboratory.

Children live a rich life already in infancy. They are wide open individuals who assess their surrounding environment, both physically and socially. They are receptive to facial expressions and other people's feelings, and from an early age, children can recognise connections and learn to anticipate some situations.

Gustaf Gredebäck, researcher at the Department of Psychology, has researched children's early understanding of their physical and social environment for a long time. He says that at four months of age, babies perceive much more than we previously knew.

“The aim of our research is to ask, among others, where this early understanding leads,” he says.

Principally it’s a question of basic research, where Gustaf Gredebäck and his colleagues essentially wish to find out how small babies perceive their surroundings. What the children notice and what they filter out as noise.

“So far we have only scratched the surface. Yet impressions shape how the children see themselves and their surroundings.” Accompanying this is also the ability to understand what other people are doing and why.

Gustaf Gredebäck has, for example, seen that young children can predict a sequence of events from an early stage.

“They can predict the consequences of your actions. They understand that you reach for a cup to take the cup. We know this, as the child looks from your hand to the cup, before your hand has reached its goal.”

A practical application of the research is to work with children who have been diagnosed autistic and their siblings.

“Infants with older siblings who have autism are more likely to be diagnosed themselves. We therefore observe the siblings of infants with an autism diagnosis over a long period to detect risk markers and in time help to develop early intervention,” says Gustaf Gredebäck.

Activities at Uppsala University are well known to the residents of Uppsala and every year the lab hosts around 1500 visits from families with small children. Many come several times.

The reactions and abilities of the children are observed in the laboratory environment, frequently using technologically advanced equipment.

Now activities at the former Infant laboratory have been merged with researchers working with older children's cognitive development. Under the name “Child and Infant lab” some thirty researchers and doctoral students will collaborate to better understand how a baby’s early experiences are bound up with later development.

“We can now ask completely different questions than before. We have created an exciting environment that gives us a relatively unique position in the world,” says Gustaf Gredebäck.

The researchers are in the process of starting several projects where they will study what happens to children who do not have an optimal upbringing, as children of depressed parents or children of mothers exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy.

Another project will look into how children are affected by the parents’ apportionment of parental leave.

“The point of departure is that it is positive for the infant to have a close relationship with several adults, but up to now there has been a lack of knowledge about how the apportionment of parental leave affects the children,” he adds.

Recently Gustaf Gredebäck was on parental leave with his third child and he certainly believes that his own research has influenced his parenting style.

“Of course it’s difficult to know. But I believe that the research has helped me to relax, as I have seen that there are so many ways to be a parent.

The important thing,” he says, “is to take your children seriously, listen to them and talk to them.” Small children have a great deal to say, even before they can talk so you need to be responsive to their signals.

“It may not always be those troublesome twos that is the cause of an anxious period. Those who listen may find another answer.”

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FACTS/Gustaf Gredebäck

Age: 38

Title: Professor of Developmental Psychology

Present: Was recently appointed a Wallenberg Academy Fellow and was awarded a Starting Grant from the European Research Council, in both instances to research how infants' social interactions can affect brain development.

Leisure time: Reading, gardening and being with my family.

Last book read: Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde

Like to watch on TV: Skavlan

Hidden talent: Pretty good at cooking.

Makes me happy: Buns, sweet cake.

Makes me angry: I'm not that fond of buying clothes.

 

Annette U Wallqvist