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Newborn Eye Movement Predicts Childhood Behavior Problems

FILE - Nurses hold newborn babies in Sidon, Lebanon, Oct. 31, 2011.
FILE - Nurses hold newborn babies in Sidon, Lebanon, Oct. 31, 2011.

It may look like newborns are doing nothing except warming the hearts of their parents. But babies who are just days old may actually be giving clues to their behavior as young children by the way they move their eyes. A new study by European researchers found that newborn eye movements may predict behavior in childhood.

Over the course of eight years, British and Italian researchers studied the attention span of 180 babies between the ages of one and four days old in northern Italy.

They showed the infants a series of images on screens, non-invasively, and measured their dwell time, or the amount of time they spent looking at the images.

Angelica Ronald, with the Center for Brain and Cognitive Development at the University of London Birkbeck, was the study’s senior author. “And some babies, as you might expect, they flitted around the screen a bit more and some babies spent more time looking at each object,” she said.

The researchers followed up with the youngsters, when they were between three and 10 years old.

Parents in 80 of the families were asked to rate their child’s behavior.

“We were amazed to find that these differences linked to how children were when they were older. So, the children who flicked around the screen more and had a shorter dwell time, to use the terms we used, were a bit more active as older children, a bit more impulsive and they had a bit more behavior problems as well,” she explained.

Ronald said the newborns that spent more time studying the images on the screen developing into children who tended to be less active, and have better impulse control.

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Ronald believes they suggest that some of the factors which influence behavior are present at birth. That rules out environmental influences after a child is born as a cause for certain behaviors, pointing instead to genetic influences or conditions in the womb.

The study is an extension of early work by Ronald and colleagues that found links between attention in seven-month old babies and later behavior problems.

However, she is quick to caution that the research is early, and while it could one day help identify babies at higher risk for attention difficulties, she said it should not be used to predict a child’s behavior or prompt parents to seek out intervention by child behavior specialists.

Ronald noted there are natural attention variations among adults, and that does not make them inattentive, impulsive or combative. “What makes someone good at being a racing car driver and having very good responses to visual stimuli and very, very quick visual attention changes — that makes them very good perhaps at being a racing car driver. On the other hand, someone working in fine art[s] or picture restoration may be good at their job because they spend quite a long time looking at visual stimuli and dwelling on visual objects,” she said.

Perhaps future research, working with adults in a variety of professions, will look at their career choice and its association with their visual attention span as newborns.