Pre-Natal Learning: Developing Food Preferences in the Womb

baby eatingExpecting mothers often worry that the food they eat may somehow affect their baby. Is this true?

If a mother consumes large quantities of carrot juice, will the baby like the taste of carrot? This is not a silly question. If food preferences can be shaped while still in the womb, it is possible that interventions may be successful at changing food preferences (as has been shown in previous research).

To seek answers to this question, Julia Manella and her colleagues at the Monell Chemical Senses Center asked expecting mothers to drink approximately one and a quarter cups of either water or carrot juice a total of four times a week for three consecutive weeks during the last trimester of their pregnancy.

Six months after the babies were born, and during the time in which the mothers had started giving the infants cereal, Manella brought the babies into the lab to observe their eating behaviors. The results showed that the infants whose mothers had consumed carrot juice during their pregnancy tended to look happier while eating a carrot-flavored cereal and actually consumed more of the cereal than the infants whose mothers had only consumed water.

Learning begins in the wombHow exactly did this happen? The researchers say the findings might be “attributable to the experimental effect of carrot juice in amniotic fluid or mothers’ milk.” They also say “very early flavor experiences provide the foundation for cultural and ethnic differences in cuisine.” For example, by exposing her fetus to a vegetable-rich diet, a mother may actually be introducing her fetus to a culture of vegetable consumption.

While more research is needed to better understand how this process unfolds, clearly this is an important study that highlights the fact that learning does not begin at birth. Learning begins in the womb.


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

How to Get Your Child to Eat Their Veggies

VeggiesParents often wonder about how they can make their children eat healthy foods. Approaches can range from being a bossy “veggies are good for you!” to “if you eat your veggies, you’ll get a new toy!” to even hiding veggies in brownies! While these kind of appeals perhaps work for some children at least some of the time, new research suggests that teaching children about the nature of food may improve their vegetable intake.

In the study, Sarah Gripshover and Ellen Markman of Stanford University hypothesized that, because children are avid learners who are eager to learn about how the world operates, that children may benefit from knowing why eating a variety of good foods, such as vegetables, is a good thing to do.

In the first part of the study, half of the children were in classrooms where teachers read multiple books about food that had been specifically designed to teach concepts about nutrition. For example, one book described nutrients as “tiny things we can’t see, but which are important for our bodies.” Another book emphasized the importance of dietary variety (“Just one kind of food is not enough. People need to get nutrients from all types of foods.”) The other half of the children heard storybooks based on the USDA’s Team Nutrition guidelines.

After children had been exposed to the storybooks for a few weeks, Gripshover took them aside and asked them a variety of comprehension questions:

  • The children who had been exposed to the storybooks were more likely to report that it was important to eat more than just one kind of healthy food,
  • 47% of the children who had been exposed to the storybooks drew on the idea of nutrients to explain their answer,
  • Children gave a puppet a different food rather the same food, suggesting that they had learned that individuals really do need to consume all types of food in order to be healthy.

Result: 2x the veggiesAfter children’s compression was tested, Gripshover went into the actual classroom and observed children’s food intake during snack time. It was found that the children who had been exposed to the storybooks ate more vegetables than the children who just heard about the USDA nutrition guidelines. Specifically, children who heard the storybooks increased their vegetable intake from around five pieces, to eleven.

The researchers see considerable promise in this procedure, and note that they showed a “transformation from a view of food that includes little beyond eating, swallowing, and excreting to a view that food contains diverse, invisible nutrients that are excreted during digestion and carried around in the blood.”

By capitalizing on children’s eagerness to understand how things work, parents and teachers may be able to increase vegetable intake.

Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Bilingual Babies Might Be Smarter

Baby & Golden Gate BridgeWell, maybe not smarter, but new research suggests bilingual infants have more flexible cognitive functions.

Parents often assume that exposing their children to a different language will boost children’s academic potential in school. However, is it possible that even infants may benefit at the cognitive level from being exposed to more than one language?

This is precisely the question that Agnes Kovacs set out to test. In her study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, she compared the performance of 7-month old bilingual and monolingual infants on a novel task.

During the first part of the task, infants heard a fun, made-up sound just prior to an image, such as a puppet, showing up on one side of screen. Infants were exposed to these kinds of stimuli various times, so that they could learn that one particular sound was associated with one particular object that would show up on one side of a screen.

Once the infants had been exposed to these pairings for a long time, the task changed. Now, instead of the image on the screen showing up on one side of the screen, it showed up on the other, and kept showing up in this new location.

The crucial question was – would infants learn to look toward the other side of the screen, or would they all keep looking toward the side where they had been extensively trained to attend to during the familiarization phase?

The answer turned out to be that only the infants growing up in a bilingual environment seemed to update their strategy. These infants were faster to begin to look toward the other side of the screen once the new “rule” had been established. In other words, they were more flexible in their thinking.

This study is very important – it suggests that, even before infants start speaking, their exposure to different languages augments their mental capacities. Importantly, the effects weren’t simply due to bilingual infants coming from more educated or wealthier families. Thus, there is something about being exposed to different languages that seems to drive the ability to engage creatively with new stimuli in the world.

The study could have clear educational or policy implications. It is possible that even monolingual parents may be given materials in other languages, such as recordings that they could play to their infants. If so, this could be of massive help to children’s creative development. As the researchers note:

“crib bilingualism promotes the development of important cognitive control functions already at a preverbal age.”


Rodolfo Cortes is a doctoral candidate in Developmental Psychology at Stanford University. He has over seven years of research experience with young children, having volunteered in the laboratories of Professor Joseph Campos and Professor Alison Gopnik during his undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. His current research, advised by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford, focuses on the role of interpersonal relationships in promoting children’s creativity and generosity. As the Thomas Murphy Fellow at the Center for Childhood Creativity, Rodolfo hopes to share his knowledge of child development with parents and the public in order to promote creative thinking in all children.

Our Creative Thinking Research Lab in the News

CCC Creative Thinking Research Lab

Caren Walker with a young subject in the Creative Thinking Research Lab at the Bay Area Discovery Museum

Caren Walker, a graduate student in CCC Advisor Alison Gopnik’s developmental psychology lab at the University of California, Berkeley, recently published research in the journal Psychological Science which she conducted at the Center for Childhood Creativity’s Creative Thinking Research Lab. Her work with 18-30 month olds in our lab at the Bay Area Discovery Museum explores how children and adults learn about the causal world in the absence of new observations – a phenomenon they call “learning by thinking”.

This research suggests these young children were able to abstract the concepts “same” and “different” from very limited evidence. In fact, as researchers become more subtle in their experiments, we find out children are able to understand abstractions at younger and younger ages. In other words – kids know more than we think they do.

Read more about this ground-breaking research:


The CCC has established an onsite-testing lab – The Creative Thinking Research Lab – at the Bay Area Discovery Museum to benefit researchers studying the cognitive components of creativity and advancing our knowledge of child development by providing a unique learning environment with many young visitors and context that promotes creative thinking, imagination, and discovery. For more information on conducting studies at the testing lab, look at our Research Guide.

Say Goodbye to Your Typical Goodnight Routine

Even though the day is done, the opportunities for creative thinking don’t have to be. Elizabeth Rieke shares insight on how to stimulate creative thinking skills, while settling your kids down for the night.

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If You Say, “Try This”…They Won’t!

turkeyAs Thanksgiving nears and families labor in the kitchen to prepare a wide array of foods, many see this feast as a great opportunity to introduce children to new foods.

However, trying to convince a child to try something will often have the opposite effect. When was the last time you tried something new simply because someone told you to?

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How To Dress Up Your Kid’s Morning Routine

Getting kids dressed in the morning can be a chore, for them and for you. We consulted with Center for Childhood Creativity CEO, Elizabeth Rieke, for a few simple ideas to make mornings more fun and less stressful.

Her insight is that by introducing imaginary play to getting dressed for the day, kids won’t think of it as a chore. Instead, they’ll eagerly transform themselves into other beings — like fairies, princesses and superheroes. Yes, this means you have to be okay with taking a superhero to soccer. This is good for them. Dress up plays an important role in childhood development. It allows them to explore roles they observe in the world, which is empowering.

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Waking Up Doesn’t Have To Be Hard

Our mission is to ignite and advance creative thinking. But at 7 o’clock in the morning? Yes! Get your kids off to a positively-energized, focused start with these tips from Center for Childhood Creativity CEO and Executive Director, Elizabeth Rieke. She’s even tried these at home — successfully. Continue reading

Why “How Was Your Day?” is a Bad Question for Kids

Back to school is an incredibly busy time for parents, an exciting time for kids and an opportune time to set up new norms for family communication. A dad friend of mine recently lamented that he has no idea what happens during school for his kids. By the time he gets home from work, the kids have moved on and when he asks, “How was you day?” all he gets in return is half-hearted, “Fine.” Continue reading

Autumn & the Outdoors: Experiencing Nature’s Benefit with Your Children

By Suz Lipman

My family and I have always loved fall. It’s often the season when we most acutely feel the turning of the year and the Earth. It’s the season of brilliant colors, bountiful harvests, introspection, exploration, and family time and traditions. It can also be a wonderful time for outdoor play and discovery – things that don’t need to end when the weather cools and school resumes.

We’ve noticed, and research confirms, that especially magical things happen when kids are allowed to engage in outdoor free play, no matter the season. And studies show that time in nature positively impacts every area of child development – physical, psychological, intellectual, social and emotional. Continue reading