Learning in Newborns

Ever heard big words like “classical”, “operant conditioning”, and “observational learning”? Did you ever think that they have something to do with newborns infants learning? Experts claim that the aforementioned are big words indeed, yet, they are very much related to the “little ones” aforementioned. Very well then, let’s see how they learn: First is through classical conditioning (Myers, 2006). Here, we are aware that learning happens through association or linking of a stimulus or a motivation which stirs up a certain response when it finally relates it with some other stimulus that formerly did not cause that response (Myers, 2006).

For example, if a father conditions his son to stop crying by pairing tapping of the baby’s legs with cradling, then the baby will associate this tapping and cradling to the message of the father that it is now time to stop crying (Myers, 2006). Similarly, if a mother wanted her baby to smile then she would condition the baby by creating a funny sound and pair with touching of the chin, and the sides of the mouth (Myers, 2006).

These actions will later help the baby to associate that it is now time to smile and will surely do so every time her mother touches her chin and when she hears funny sounds (Myers, 2006). Second is through operant conditioning (Myers, 2006). Here, learning happens if rewards or reinforcements, as well as, punishments are given (Myers, 2006). We have learned in our previous lessons that reinforcements are those which motivate behaviors to increase, while punishments decrease behaviors (Myers, 2006).

Do you still remember that? If not, then please permit me to refresh your minds. “Positive reinforcements” are technically referred to as something pleasant which enhances, pushes, or increases a certain behavior, while “negative reinforcements” are those which are rather unpleasant and which helps stop a certain behavior (Myers, 2006). For example, a mother who would want to stop her son from crying while seated in the stroller would place him in the crib (Myers, 2006).

For a baby, we all know that the tendency is that, he would feel punished for being left in the crib where he would not see much of his parents as compared with just being in the stroller wherein he would just be sitting down watching his mother move around (Myers, 2006). This negative reinforcement implemented by his mother will surely decrease if not totally stop his behavior, which in this case is crying (Myers, 2006). Similarly, if a playing, enjoying baby is behaving very well, given more toys that will fascinate him, he is most likely to play, enjoy more and consequently continuously behave as well (Myers, 2006).

Notice that the positive reinforcement referred to here are the toys to increase the behavior described here as behaving (Myers, 2006). Another example is when a baby learns that, he gets extra attention from his dad if he keeps on smiling (Myers, 2006). He then will surely continue smiling to solicit more attention from his dad (Myers, 2006). Again, notice how positive reinforcement, which in this case, is the extra attention provided by the dad, increased the behavior of the child, which is smiling in this particular example (Myers, 2006).

Last but not least is through “observational learning” (Myers, 2006). From our previous lessons, we have been consistently reminded that this may be realized or reached by simply observing and imitating the people we see (Myers, 2006). To prove my claim, allow me to provide some examples depicted in the newborns I have observed for the sake of this presentation of mine: My cousin teaches his son to clap by watching interesting videos like that of “Barney”, says the word clap (while doing the act itself) after “Barney” and his “backyard gang” presents a song or a dance number (Myers, 2006).

It is so amazing that after only doing it thrice, my cousin’s son already imitated the act (Myers, 2006). Also, when my cousin shook her husband’s hands and showed it to their son, after showing it five times or so, the baby already reaches out to somebody else’s hands to attempt to shake theirs as well (Myers, 2006). It is so incredible how complicated and big terms like “classical conditioning”, “operant conditioning”, and “observational learning” affect the learning of little ones (Myers, 2006).


Myers, D. G. (2006). Psychology. NY: Worth Publishers.

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