Babies Can Count Way Earlier Than Thought

New research shows babies as young as 14 months understand the concept of counting.
Donna Fuscaldo
Baby playing with numbers NataliaDeriabina/iStock

Babies don't start speaking clearly until they are around two years old, but they can apparently count earlier than previously thought. 

That's according to new research from John Hopkins University, which found babies between 14 months and 18 months old were able to count toys during experiments with the researchers.  The work was published in journal Developmental Science. 


Babies can count way earlier than thought 

"Although they are years away from understanding the exact meanings of number words, babies are already in the business of recognizing that counting is about number," said senior author Lisa Feigenson, a cognitive scientist at Johns Hopkins who specializes in the development of numeric ability in children said in a press release highlighting the results. "Research like ours shows that babies actually have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the world - they're already trying to make sense of what adults around them are saying, and that includes this domain of counting and numbers."

Feigenson and Jenny Wang, a former graduate student at John Hopkins and the first author of the study, set out to determine if its true babies don't fully understand how numbers work until around the age of four and were surprised by what they found.

The researchers had babies between the ages of 14 months and 18 months watch as toys, dogs and even cars were hidden in a box that they couldn't see inside of but were able to reach in to. When the babies didn't count the toys or objects being placed in the box they couldn't remember if the box held one or more things. But when the toys were counted as they went in the box, the babies expected more than one to emerge. While the babies couldn't remember the exact number of toys they did have a general idea of how many were supposed to be in the box. 

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More studies need to be done 

"When we counted the toys for the babies before we hid them, the babies were much better at remembering how many toys there were," Wang said in the press release. "As a researcher these results were really surprising. And our results are the first to show that very young infants have a sense that when other people are counting it is tied to the rough dimension of quantity in the world." The team from John Hopkins is now running follow-up studies to determine if babies can react to counting in different languages. 

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