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Introduction to Infant Development


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Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: December 2003 - Volume 24 - Issue 6 - p 450-451
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Introduction to Infant Development edited by Alan Slater and Michael Lewis

New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2002, 384 pp, $36.95 hardcover.

This is a book that promises “a representative, comprehensive, and completely up to date, ‘state-of-the-art’ account of infant development,” while at the same time appealing to “a broad range of readers, and in particular those with little previous exposure to psychology.” And although it delivers on this promise to some degree, it also falls prey to the problems one might expect to accompany such a broad mandate: Where the text is trying to be “up to date,” it occasionally indulges in theoretical debates of limited interest to nonspecialists; in its attempts to speak to less-sophisticated readers, the coverage is often superficial (e.g., providing just two pages on temperament). The difficulty of producing a volume that is both cutting edge and introductory is reflected in a greater-than-usual degree of unevenness between chapters. Some of them babble, others drone, a few sing. Anticipating such problems, the editors secured the services of a “science writer” to ensure that the book reads coherently. This strategy was at best partially successful.

A few examples will illustrate the unevenness of the text. The first chapter, “A Brief History of Infancy Research,” provides a very engaging discussion of the earliest memories of infancy, beginning with the fact that such memories are often inaccurate. The rest of the historical review moves along briskly, offering plenty of interesting examples. Chapter 2, “Basic Methods in Infant Research,” provides a clear exposition of several different techniques, including habituation, expectancy violation, and the still-face procedure. Chapter 3, in contrast, is a sketchy account of prenatal development that includes a number of statements that seem overly simplistic. For example, the author asserts that “Development proceeds in order of importance it begins with the ‘more important organs’ for survival and the less important ones develop later.” The topics of myelinization and synaptogenesis are dealt with in a total of three sentences—far too brief a treatment of such critically important topics. On the other hand, a full four paragraphs are spent describing the “fetal origins hypothesis,” a hand-waving formulation that seems to be based on very little evidence (the only citations are to a pair of monographs) and that is peripheral to the contemporary understanding of brain development.

Further examples of uneven level and quality are not hard to find. Chapter 4, for example, explores theories of motor development in detail, attempting to define such jargon-rich concepts as emergence, spontaneous pattern formation, self-organization, probabilistic epigenesis, and hierarchic (central) and heterarchic (peripheral) control mechanisms. What we do not find in the chapter is any clear explanation of how motor development relates to social, cognitive, or linguistic development, or to the life of the family; how theories of motor development connect to our emerging understanding of the organization and function of the central nervous system; or how new insights into motor development are being incorporated into new therapies for children with motor delays. In short, the discussion never descends to a level where a non-theorist might actually care. (However, the chapter does include several photographs of adorable babies doing “motor” things, such as “standing unsupported.” My favorite shows an infant of 8 or 9 months “grasping and manipulating” an object that looks suspiciously like a beer bottle!) Chapter 5, “The Development of the Senses,” somehow manages to make this fascinating area rather dull, perhaps because so many passages repeat information from previous chapters without delving any deeper and without connecting sensory development with either changes in brain structure and function or with therapeutic interventions.

In a volume of some 300 pages devoted to infant development, it would be remarkable if one did not find several chapters that are fascinating and rich in information. Among the high points are Paul Quinns’ detailed explanation of infant categorization (Chapter 7) and Peter Jusczyk’s explanation of speech perception (Chapter 9). In contrast, the chapters on early emotional development (Chapter 11) and social development (Chapter 12) could have been more focused and concise. I found myself distracted by a number of sentences that cried out for better editing, such as “The attachment of the infant to its mother has been likened to a love affair and has been called attachment,” and “Bowlby saw the infant’s relationship to his mother as the first and strongest love digest [sic]” and “Siblings play a variety of roles, namely, one another.”

The volume concludes with two chapters addressing the topics of early intervention and social policy related to infant development. These are among the stronger chapters in the book. One could have wished, however, that the editors had worked harder to develop the connections between the basic science in the first 14 chapters and the applied research and policy perspectives in the last two chapters.

This is a volume that psychologists and behavioral pediatricians will find interesting and useful—parts of it, anyhow. But I do not think I would recommend it for pediatric residents or general pediatricians as an enticing introduction to the rich field of infant development. The level of discourse and quality of writing are too uneven, and the parts do not quite manage to come together into a satisfying whole.

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.