Babies are black boxes. For the first six months of their lives, nearly everything they do is absolutely mystifying. Why did Kayleigh sleep eight hours for weeks but wake up 1,000 times last night? Why did Ashlinthan latch on to the breast perfectly once and only once? Does that face little Muffaletta’s making mean that she’s happy, she’s sad, or she’s pooping? (Oh, she was pooping.)
Some parents simply embrace or accept that mystery. You hope that every crying jag can be solved with some milk, a fresh diaper, or some vigorous bouncing; when all else fails you put the kid in the car seat and drive around for an hour so she can get some sleep. But other parents, desperate for information, vacuum up every bit of expert advice and every half-baked research report, dreaming of the day that the inscrutable behavior of this fat little doofus might, with the aid of science, make sense. For those kinds of parents, the Netflix documentary Babies, premiering Friday, will be a welcome six-hour primer.
Each episode of Babies intersperses adorable footage of babies doing baby stuff—sleeping, nursing, crawling—with numerous scientists presenting their work on baby topics like, well, sleeping, nursing, and crawling. After a British couple speculates as to whether baby Willow is dreaming when she twitches in her crib, we cut to a University of Iowa psychologist who explains the results of his study on brainwave activity during infant sleep. Babies features only three types of protagonists—babies, parents in the throes of sleep deprivation, and scientists—so it’s not surprising that the scientists seem extremely clever and inspirational. They’re the only ones who aren’t incoherent.
This disparity between the cognitive states of the researchers and everyone else lends them authority even when the actual research is, to put it kindly, eye-rolly as hell. It’s one thing to see moms and dads spit into tubes so their saliva can be tested for bonding-facilitating oxytocin. It’s another to see a scientist watch videos of one baby figuring out how to turn over a box and another simply reaching inside the box, and to see that scientist confidentlydeclare that Baby A has retained more memories because of her nap. Some of the research will only further worry nervous parents: Am I producing enough oxytocin? Are other mommies producing more?!? But sometimes a scientist comes through with exactly the result I wish I’d heard when I was a newborn’s flailing father, as when that Iowa psychologist notes that for the first 3 to 4 months of a baby’s life, there’s literally no neural connection between the part of the brain that activates sleep and the part that controls Circadian rhythms. Oh, it’s physically impossible for that baby to create any kind of sleep schedule? Horrible, but comforting nonetheless.
Babies is not related in any way other than its title to the 2010 Thomas Balmes documentary Babies, whose 79 minutes of nonstop, non-narrated, hot baby action drove some observers to a kind of glorious lunacy. And watching the new Babies, I often felt as though it could use less science and more … babies. Every scientist gets a cute scientist origin story—“I know how to think about babies,” one NYU neurobiologist recalls bragging when his own daughter was born, “so this is gonna be easy. Little did I know!”—and gets to deliver deathless narration along the lines of “The relationship with our parents has such a huge impact on how a baby develops!” We get shots of scientists paging through books in libraries, peering at brain scans, scraping stool samples into test tubes, standing on bridges over icy streams. A scientist’s gloved finger touches a button reading SEQUENCE. A scientist in a cowboy hat sits on a bale of hay, a computer and a cat in her lap, looking at an Excel chart (on the computer). In every one of those cases, I would, I confess, rather have seen a baby.
It’s when I watched the researchers interact with their cherubic subjects, though, that I grudgingly gave in to the magic of Babies’ scientific method. These babies are not just data points in diapers; even the guy who’s been researching baby cognition since the 1960s turns into a gooey, goo-gooing goon when faced with an infant. Baby science is a weird gig! To be a baby scientist is to run a lab that features cute little pillows and a chest full of toys. Sure, the vaccine researchers get the glory and the E.D. drug developers get the pharma investment, but I think baby scientists know where it’s at. After all, what other field lets you spend all day with the cutest thing in the world: babies in EEG caps?
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