Intriguing new research suggests a baby can count at least up to six by just 18 months. Although it will still be a year or two before she or he masters the art, the principles are being firmly established.

The intriguing finding comes from an Australian study of dozens of infants. The girls and boys were placed in a high chair in front of a screen displaying six fish.

In some cases, a woman pointed to each of the fish in turn, while reciting the numbers one to six, in the correct order. This scoring off of objects one-by-one is key to learning to count.

In others cases, the woman still said the numbers but repeatedly pointed to just two of the fish. The 18-month-old infants tended to watch the first scenario for longer. 

This suggests, say the scientists, that they were aware that counting involves moving from object to object in order without duplication.

The 15-month-olds, however, were equally interested in both videos, suggesting they had yet to start learning principles of counting, the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B reports.

To check that the 18-month-olds weren't just responding to the hand moving over a larger portion of the screen, the researchers repeated the experiment, using computer-generated bleeps in place of the numbers. The toddlers' lack of interest in the bleeps suggested that the words were important. Similarly, using the Japanese words for one to six failed to grab attention.

Tellingly, the older youngsters whose parents spent the most time trying to teach them how to count were most interested in videos, meaning that time spent on counting games is time well spent.
The researchers said: 'Children begin to count sometime after the age of two and their skill develops over the next several years. But before then, infants witness many instances of counting demonstrated by parents and older siblings.

"Our data suggest that between the ages of 15 and 18 months, infants begin to learn the abstract principles governing correct counting via exposure to their cultural counting routine.

"These results show that infants start to acquire the abstract principles governing correct counting prior to producing any counting behaviour."

The study is not the first to suggest that babies are wise beyond their years. Previous research has shown that six-month-old babies are capable of telling the difference between friend and foe, suggesting we are born with a moral code. 

And a British study found that babies may come into the world with brains capable of daydreaming and introspection.

Studies also show that by the tender age of ten months, youngsters are aware of the "law of the jungle" - that size brings with it power.

Posted by Penny Hosie on 16.2.11
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