Winner of the book award of the American Psychological Association.

Contents & sample pages

New York Times
March 27, 1988



THE WORLD OF THE NEWBORN By Daphne Maurer and Charles Maurer. Illustrated. 293 pp. New York: Basic Books. $20.95.

It is not always easy to study newborn babies. Many of the classic studies, on which we still rely to understand development, have been done on skewed populations of babies; the effects of sensory deprivation, for example, are often inferred from observations of institutionalized babies. Few parents, one imagines, would gladly consent to have their newborn infants tested with noxious stimuli, or deprived of any of the usual accouterments of happy normal infancy. The newborn baby thus remains an intensely observed but somewhat obscure being. Daphne Maurer and Charles Maurer, in ''The World of the Newborn,'' attempt to build a coherent picture of the newborn infant's sensorium, to show us what the world looks like, feels like, tastes like, sounds like to a nervous system newly emerged from the womb.

Actually, the book begins within the womb. The Maurers - she teaches psychology at McMaster University in Ontario, he is a science writer - are most successful when they succeed in prompting the reader to stop and wonder: what does the womb taste like? how loud are the noises a fetus hears? They argue that far from the peaceful, secure haven we imagine, the womb can be ''boomy, bumpy, unsettling, and foul tasting.''

They go on to follow the newborn baby through the upheaval of birth, and then to consider, one by one, the newborn infant's ways of experiencing the world; they move from the specifics of taste, sight and sound into a consideration of the infant's consciousness. In all of these areas, they try scrupulously to avoid the pitfall of projecting adult sensibilities upon the baby; just because you have documented that a baby has the physiological capacity to register certain stimuli does not mean that the baby then perceives them as an adult would - which leads to the question of consciousness.

The Maurers' theory about a newborn's consciousness is that the baby, dependent on perceptions of the world but with no knowledge of the world to correlate with them, lives largely in a looking-glass environment that is the inverse of our own. They offer, as an analogy, an observer on a flying horse, moving at close to the speed of light, who sees the world apparently moving past: ''Of course, you as an adult identify this moving world as composed of trees and fields. You remember that trees and fields usually are stationary and are too substantial to move, so you deduce that they are still stationary and that you yourself are moving. . . . But if you had never seen nor heard about trees and fields -if you were newly born - then you would not deduce this. Instead you would accept your direct observation, that the trees and fields are moving. . . . If you overtook another flying object, like a helicopter, you would think that the helicopter is moving slower than the trees and field; for since both of you would be moving in the same direction, you would take longer to pass the helicopter than you would take to pass the trees.''

This analogy leads us further and further into the mind of the newborn, whose developing nervous system picks up information from an unknown world; the Maurers posit an ''observer'' within the newborn's brain, an observer that constitutes the rudimentary ''awareness'' of the baby, for whom the speed of neurologic transmission is the limitation of velocity, analogous to the speed of light. This analogy is at times difficult to follow, but it leads the authors into complex and tantalizing constructions of the baby's sensorium.

In detailing the complex and often ingenious experiments that have allowed scientists to tease out the elements of this process, the Maurers are scrupulous about the limitations of the studies they cite. This is not a book that presents scientific facts to dazzle the lay reader; instead the authors consistently explain the process by which their assumptions were derived, and they go out of their way to explain why some studies are flawed, however interesting, why others cannot be extended. Sections of this book could serve as a primer on how to read scientific articles (or news stories about scientific ''discoveries''), and this not only makes absorbing reading, but also lends authority to what is of necessity a highly speculative book.

It is also fascinating to follow the details of some of the classic experiments; it is a truism, for example, that very young children will choose a healthy diet if left to themselves, but I had never read the particulars of Clara Davis's 1928 experiments in which a buffet of food was set out for 8- and 9-month-old babies, who indicated their preferences by pointing or grabbing, and made up rather unorthodox menus for themselves (''breakfast might be liver and a pint of orange juice,'') but contrived to get all the necessary nutrients - somehow taste coordinated with nutritional need.

The newborn's world, the Maurers argue, is a world of synesthesia, of confusion of the senses. ''His world smells to him much as our world smells to us, but he does not perceive odors as coming through his nose alone. He hears odors, and sees odors, and feels them too. His world is a melee of pungent aromas - and pungent sounds, and bitter-smelling sounds, and sweet-smelling sights, and sour-smelling pressures against the skin. If we could visit the newborn's world, we would think ourselves inside a hallucinogenic perfumery.''

The Maurers are consistently capable of clear and evocative science writing; this book is an honest and successful attempt to lead the lay reader through a field where psychology, medicine and the neurosciences all offer pieces of information. There are specific sections of advice offered to parents (this book would make particularly interesting reading to someone watching a newborn baby from day to day, observing every little nuance of behavior) and these are both reassuring and humane.

The coherent image of the newborn human the Maurers present shows us a being very different from ourselves. In fact, our words for sensation, for color, sound, pleasure, pain only offer approximations as we try to imagine the newborn's experiences. The irony, of course, is that we have all passed through that world, that those perceptions are the beginnings of adult awareness. In fact, the memories that would answer questions about this brief and unique stage of life are locked within us all. ''The World of the Newborn'' is a fascinating book, newborns are fascinating - not just because they are our children and we love them, but because they also represent our own beginnings.

The Journal of Pediatric Psychology

Volume 16, Number 2: April 1991

The World of the Newborn. By Daphne Maurer and Charles Maurer.
New York: Basic Books, 1988.

In The World of the Newborn, Daphne and Charles Maurer provide a comprehensive account of how babies hear, see, feel, and think. Daphne Maurer is a developmental psychologist at McMaster University, and Charles Maurer is a scientific writer. Their aims are ambitious: to review all of the pertinent literature on newboms, including every article written in English during this century as well as articles appearing in European journals in other languages, and to provide an account of early development from the perspective of the newborn. They accomplish these goals with aplomb.

The World of the Newborn is a landmark book; it is among those rare titles that successfully offer a startlingly fresh perspective on their subject matter. The Maurers begin with a description of the sensations babies experience in utero and during birth. Subsequent chapters cover the newbom's perceptions during alert periods and during sleep. They describe what babies see, hear, and taste, and in later chapters they accomplish the even more difficult task of describing what newborns think. Each chapter is extensively referenced, and each of their assertions is documented by pertinent research. Footnotes and exhaustive annotations at the end of the book provide additional information and summaries of research cited in the text. A tremendous amount of information is squeezed into less than 300 pages.

The Maurers refreshingly avoid psychological jargon; however, their text is not simplistic. Although the dust jacket addresses parents as the intended audience, professionals working with young babies will find much that is new, and this book will be a valuable addition for virtually anyone interested in this topic, including nurses, early intervention workers, developmental and clinical child psychologists, and pediatricians. This book would also be an appropriate text for undergraduate and graduate level courses pertaining to development during infancy. While parents might be overwhelmed reading the book in its entirety due to the extensiveness of the research reviewed, the initial chapters would be especially useful to expectant parents in describing the amazing capabilities of newborns during the first few months of life.

This book is crammed with many interesting facts and findings. One of the many examples I could describe is that infants continue to learn during sleep, as the newbom's cortical activity is never suppressed and EEGs recorded during sleep are almost indistinguishable from those taken during quiet or active alert states. A baby just 3 days old can distinguish one voice from another, preferring its mother's voice to that of a stranger, as measured by the frequency of sucking on a pacifier that controls which voice is heard. Interestingly, the newborn shows no comparable preference for its father's voice, although it can tell two men's voices apart. Among newboms, girls tend to be more sensitive to touch, whereas boys only a few hours old tend to lift their head better and kick and grip more forcefully. Most babies are more sensitive on the right side of their body, especially if they have been lying with their head turned toward the right as they commonly do.

The Maurers dispel some commonly held beliefs. They cite evidence that newboms do not find listening to heartbeats more soothing than other sounds. They argue that the popular view that delivery is traumatic is mistaken, and that the Leboyer method of delivery may actually make a newborn more uncomfortable by additional chilling. They also cite evidence that the diagnosis of "fetal alcohol syndrome" is unsubstantiated by research. In reviewing pertinent literature, they point out that expectant mothers who are drinking heavily also tend to score lower on socioeconomic indicators, and the authors found only one study that came even close to sorting out alcohol use from these other factors. They surmise that the particular constellation of birth defects involving mental retardation, stunted growth, and facial abnormalities that is characteristic of the syndrome come together no more often than expected by chance from among the many birth defects found in infants born to mothers in impoverished circumstances.

The World of the Newborn is a delightful and fascinating book. It is recommended with enthusiasm to anyone, parent or professional, interested in the development of newborns.

Miriam Sexton
University of Massachusetts Medical Center