The Princeton Baby Lab: Big Research From Small Subjects

By Wendy Greenberg // Photography by Fotobuddy Photography 

Where in Princeton can parents take their babies and older siblings to play in a bright space with books, toys, and engaging staff?

Playgroup? Toddler gym? Wrong. Welcome to the Princeton Baby Lab, run by a research group in Princeton University’s psychology department.

The lab was conceived in 2014, born in May 2015 and has developed nicely in Peretsman Scully Hall, off South Drive next to Roberts Stadium. It even has an endearing baby tiger logo.

But while the Baby Lab provides a warm space for families with babies who participate in its studies, it is also a place where researchers are learning how human brains develop in the first several years of life, and how learning and experience support early development.

“Early learning is still a mystery,” said co-director Casey Lew-Williams. “We are trying to understand the complexities.”

Fun for siblings too

On a gray day in December, Ryann and her three children visited the lab. Older daughters Lilly and Julie were excited to draw and read stories with a staff member. Some of their drawings from past visits beautify the walls. Ten-month-old Kenny happily manipulated blocks at a play table. He was there to participate in a study run by postdoctoral researcher Christine Potter.

Potter explores how characteristics such as age, prior knowledge, and memory skills, can change the kinds of information that learners are most likely to perceive and acquire. This study — one of about 10 ongoing studies in the lab — explored Kenny’s ability to learn from different people. Kenny was asked to listen to one speaker saying some familiar words, like dog or bike, and was then tested to see if he could recognize the same words when he heard them spoken by a different voice.

During the study, Kenny sat on his mom’s lap while words were spoken over a loudspeaker and a blinking light on a screen caught his attention. He quickly learned that when he looked away, the sounds stopped, allowing Potter to measure what captured his interest. Ryann listened to music on headphones so she would not unconsciously nudge Kenny toward the screen. The study stops if a youngster is tired, but Kenny finished successfully.

Ryann said she heard about the lab from “mommy groups.” Her older daughter showed an interest in science, and she wanted to give her a chance to see science in action. But the area is so much like a playroom, she noted, that her daughter asked “Where are the scientists?”

“All three kids love it,” said Ryann, whose husband also was there with the family. “The kids fell in love with everyone here. It is great to help the research. It’s something different for them to do.”

The study Kenny participated in will determine whether children react differently to familiar words spoken by different voices.

Another recent Baby Lab study found that mothers support babies’ language learning by shifting their vocal timbre. The lab researchers found two distinctly different vocal fingerprints, one directed at babies and the other directed at adults, measured by a computer algorithm. The recent study appeared in the journal Current Biology. 

Clues to early development

These are the kind of research studies that lab directors Casey Lew-Williams and Lauren Emberson had in mind when they started the lab — studies that might uncover how babies and young children learn to talk and develop, how they process the world, and, ultimately, how caregivers can best support a child’s development.

“The lab started when we were both hired to spark a developmental psychology initiative in 2014,” said Emberson. “We decided to pool resources and establish a combined Princeton Baby Lab that would house both of our individual lab staff and research technology. We worked with an architect to design the space, and have been involved in everything from determining where the walls go to the toys that are in the waiting room.”

While many universities have developmental psychology programs, the Baby Lab “is focused on how babies break into the structure of the world,” said Lew-Williams. “To understand the complexity of human behavior, you have to understand how learning begins during infancy.”

His research focus is children’s language, how language experience shapes the ability to process language, which in turn shapes development. “The more enriching, high quality language children hear, the better they are at processing information,” said Lew-Williams, who ran a childhood development lab at Northwestern University.

He studies various populations — including children learning two languages and children growing up in poverty — to ask questions about the foundations and important consequences of early learning.

“We are starting to fit together pieces of language environments that shape the abilities to  learn new words,” said Lew-Williams, himself the parent of young children. The studies also create opportunities for interventions, looking at “what kinds of interventions help in achieving the goals of processing language and the environment.”

Emberson was trained at Cornell, where she focused on perception, cognition, and development. At Princeton, she investigates how infants’ visual and auditory perceptual and learning systems work together during new experiences to support development.

Lab goals and hopes

The directors hope the lab research “will allow us to understand the powerful and sophisticated learning capabilities that we are born with, and how development can be negatively affected when these basic learning mechanisms are compromised,” said Emberson, whose 3-month-old daughter took part in a study as a newborn.

Many of Emberson’s studies use a technique called functional near-infared spectroscopy (fNIRS), an emerging. FDA-approved neuroimaging technology that gives researchers a peek into the infant brain when it is small and records changes in neural activity using safe amounts of infared light.

“Our lab is at the forefront of this exciting technique,” she said. “I’ve given talks and workshops about this technology all over the world and work with many other labs to help them adopt this method in their own research.”

The technique can expand current knowledge about development, she explained. “We are very limited in the ways that we can study very young infants, but fNIRS allows us to get a peek into how their brains are responding to their experiences and changing starting from birth.” The technique uses light reflection, and a comfortable cap specifically designed for young babies.

With all the work going on in the Princeton Baby Lab, the research still depends on some traditional ways of recruiting families to participate in studies: flyers and word of mouth at area playgroups, meeting families at the local hospital, Music Together, Facebook, preschools, and gathering places like farmers markets.

Part of the community

One non-research goal is to become part of the greater Princeton community. “Fortunately, the experience is a good one, so there are a lot of repeat families,” said Emberson. “We are lucky to have so many awesome families visit us, often many, many times during their child’s or children’s early years,” she said. “I would like our community to know how fun, interesting, and easy it is to participate in research studies in the lab, but also how much we value their involvement. In so many ways, we wouldn’t exist without them.  We try to make the experience something that every family enjoys and learns something from.” Participants receive a newsletter to keep them up to date about the studies, as well as a T-shirt, a small stipend, and a children’s book.

“Area families seem to value science,” said Casey-Williams. “We frame it as volunteering for a cause. I have heard parents say to their children, “You are going to be a data point in a study!”

The hope is that families “learn more about their little ones’ development as well as how research is done and why it is so important,” said Emberson.

 “Every experience that an infant has changes their brain . . . not to say that parents need to worry about every single moment in their infant’s lives, but rather that they should understand that the richness of their infant’s life is what helps them to develop. Whether it is reading books, going for walks, or having a ‘conversation’ with you, all of these experiences are shaping how their brains develop.”

“How can we support children?” asked Lew-Williams. “We want to use our findings to help every kid maximize their potential.”

For more about Princeton Baby Lab, call 609.258.6577 or visit the website at www.babylab.princeton.edu.