Published

06 May 2021

The Baby Development Lab in the University of East London conducts world-leading research into babies' early development. Throughout the pandemic, it became noticeable that there was a change in the behaviour of the babies that visited the lab.

The BabyDevLab sits in the heart of Stratford, on Water Lane, giving it access to the rich concentration of different cultures and different backgrounds in this small area. This allows the researchers to look at how different backgrounds affect babies in different ways.

Labs and research facilities were allowed to stay open during lockdown, providing they remained COVID secure.  The lab uses the same PPE equipment the workers in COVID testing centres use and researchers continue to follow a rigorous social distancing policy and only see one family at a time.

Throughout lockdown, the lab researched what happened when parents and infants around one-year-olds interacted with each other. Over a few sessions, parents and their babies would play together, and researchers looked at how they spoke (vocalised) with each other; as well as what happened to their heart rates, where they looked, and what their brainwaves showed. Other current research looks at early word learning, and the effects of stress, and of anxiety. 

Dr Sam Wass, from the School of Psychology at the University of East London, has been leading the lab since 2016. He is known for his work on Channel 4's Secret Life of Four-Year-Olds. He said, "At the lab, after an initial break during the first lockdown, we've been able to see babies throughout the pandemic. The babies that are coming through our doors now have only ever known the pandemic. "

We've noticed that the babies we are seeing now are much shyer than the babies who we were seeing before the pandemic and are less used to interacting with 'stranger' adults who they don't live with. This is really interesting to us because we're interested in how babies' early interactions shape the way they experience the world.

But Dr Wass doesn't think that the lack of 'stranger' interactions will have a huge effect. 

"This shouldn't have a long-term effect on their development, as long as parents continue interacting with them appropriately at home. 

“We think that babies learn to process a prototypical face by staring repeatedly at their parent's face - and that more time spent learning how to see a face by looking at one face repeatedly might actually make their brains better at discriminating different faces during later development. Early learning works through repetition, and then later in development, diverse examples become useful.

“We do know that parents are actually interacting more with their children during the pandemic, because they are at home more. In fact, some parents, particularly those who may have been going out to work, report that they have extra 'play' time with their babies that they would have missed. Other parents are just glad to get out of the house to come and see us!"

The lab has raised £2.2 million pounds in external funding since 2016, meaning it can carry out its ambitious research programme and it has just started looking at the effects of nature and the environment on children's attention and learning.  This is particularly relevant in a year where most schooling has been carried out through technology such as google classroom and zoom.  

A new study will look at babies as young as two months. For the first time, using specialised equipment, researchers will follow what babies' experience in the first and most important environment they know - their homes - over the first three years of their life. Dr Wass says that this will give the lab a greater insight into what really happens in the babies' own worlds, at the time they are learning the skills they need to interact with the world in general.  

The Baby Development Lab is now looking for 13 & 14-month-old babies to help with their current research into early word learning.  They are also recruiting babies aged 9-13 months and newborn to age 4.

Parents and pregnant women who are interested in taking part in any of the studies can contact the lab at dev@uel.ac.uk.

Related topics