BabyLabs, Cognitive Flexibility, and IBCLCs

Researchers study how babies learn in infant cognition labs around the world, often in graduate programs in developmental psychology. The following link is to the home page of one such lab, located at the University of Essex, a public research university in Essex, England. At the bottom of their home page, a copy of their tweet from November 29, 2018 asks, "Help inform our research by filling out this online survey on #eating behavior and #food preference in childhood @EssexBabylab".

Will this lab and other BabyLabs someday study the sensory-perceptual-motor learning of infant milk-feeding skills with one or more skilled IBCLCs included on their research team? Also important to study is the observable skill decay (motor forgetting) for infant breastfeeding skills that often follows the use of an artificial nipple, particularly during early learning but not only during early learning. The re-acquisition of infant breastfeeding skills is another important aspect for future study. There is already a body of work on the study of infant sucking behaviors in puppies, including the work of the Carolyn Rovee-Collier (1942-2014), a developmental psychologist who is considered the founder of the field of infant long-term memory research. Rovee-Collier completed her insightful master’s thesis on sucking in puppies.

Early memories are fragile, including motor memories, and we commonly face early challenges in learning and remembering a new computer password or a new telephone number. Our human need for task-specific practice is reflected in The Specificity Principle, and the repetition of this task-specific practice is necessary for gradually building robust memory for each of those numerical sequences for our motor performance, as well as our gradual ability to visually identify a particular telephone number, and to correctly state a specific numerical sequence aloud. Another important precept from kinesiology: the greater the difficulty of the task, the greater the need for practice that is specific for the task.

When a new music student begins once-a-week music lessons but does not practice the new music that was awkwardly learned in the last lesson, it is no surprise that little to none of the previous music lesson is recalled at the next lesson. However, when the student becomes motivated enough to engage in the repetition of task-specific practice, and when the student is given appropriate verbal, visual, and manual guidance from the instructor, the voluntary process of task-specific practice is an effective opportunity for building increasingly greater motor control for the task.

The cognitive demands of task switching have been heavily studied for decades, including the well-known switch costs of decreased speed and accuracy for the task. Today’s PubMed search using the term “task switching” yielded 3,185 results. Note that when the search term is hyphenated as “task-switching”, the yield is far fewer at 1,461 results. PubMed searches can be highly specific, even in regard to something as small as the presence or absence of a hyphen!

In helping babies to learn or relearn the oral grasp at the breast following a learning experience with an artificial nipple, finger-feeding is often highly effective, particularly in younger infants. This is reflected in the well-known precept from developmental science termed the exuberant learning of infancy, and the younger the baby, the faster the learning. Forgetting is also rapid in infancy, and thus the frequent observations of skill decay (motor forgetting) for infant breastfeeding skills that often follow one or more learning experiences with an artificial nipple, particularly during early learning but not only during early learning.

In the new review article linked below, the value of associative learning mechanisms is discussed. In the field of infant feeding, finger-feeding provides babies the opportunity to learn to associate the sensory-perceptual-motor learning experience of human touch with sucking and receiving the reward of milk for one’s efforts, also reflecting reward-based learning and reinforcement learning. Infant feeding clinicians such as IBCLCs often observe a heavier weighting of the primitive survival reflexes toward the more recently learned feeding method, and thus task-switching for infant milk-feeding skills is frequently observed to be a challenging experience, particularly during early learning when memories are notably fragile. Similarly, bottle-fed infants often display difficulty with the oral grasp of a new artificial nipple that is different from the previously learned style of artificial nipple, and these difficulties range from mild to moderate to pronounced.

Cognitive flexibility also has a developmental sequence. In infancy, we have the least ability for skillfully switching between tasks, yet as we reach childhood, we display more cognitive flexibility than our younger baby selves. By adolescence, we have achieved even greater cognitive flexibility, and by adulthood, we have reached the pinnacle of cognitive flexibility, yet discerning and differentiating between things that are similar yet different is often cognitively demanding for adults who are otherwise skilled in many areas. Some of us who have first learned to use western utensils may opt to later learn how to use chopsticks, but many of us find that learning to use chopsticks is too confusing, i.e., it is too cognitively demanding, and we may avoid the cognitive demands of any further practice in the use of chopsticks. Others will enjoy the cognitive challenges of learning how to use chopsticks, and will continue the trial-and-error process toward increasingly greater skill over time. (The trajectory is the same for the hand-to-mouth movements involved in using a spoon, fork, and chopsticks, but the learning curve is steep for the novel manual grasp of chopsticks).

The following new review article, “Getting a Grip on Cognitive Flexibility”, is authored by Senne Braem of Ghent University in Belgium and Tobias Egner of Duke University in the U.S.

From their abstract: “Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to quickly reconfigure our mind, like when we switch between different tasks. This review highlights recent evidence showing that cognitive flexibility can be conditioned by simple incentives typically known to drive lower-level learning, such as stimulus-response associations. Cognitive flexibility can also become associated with, and triggered by, bottom-up contextual cues in our environment, including subliminal cues. Therefore, we suggest that the control functions that mediate cognitive flexibility are grounded in, and guided by, basic associative learning mechanisms, and abide by the same learning principles as more low-level forms of behavior. Such a learning perspective on cognitive flexibility offers new directions and important implications for further research, theory, and applications.”

For more information on the acquisition and re-acquisition of infant breastfeeding skills, please join us for our 3-hour intensive webinar,

MoreThanReflexes: Learning, Forgetting, and Relearning Infant Breastfeeding Skills.