Babies are Born With (or Without) Number Sense

Chelsea Day

Babies are born with some pretty cool innate abilities. I swear my oldest could sort his toys into detailed groupings by size, color, quantity and texture pretty much since birth. My second child has a clear indifference towards this sort of engineering, but he does have a knack for words and the charm of a youthful Seth MacFarlane… so I’m not particularly worried about how he’ll survive in this world. We’re all innately a little bit “right brain” or “left brain,” they say, and researchers are actually beginning to prove that theory – with babies!

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A recent study found that babies are actually born with an inherent tendency to be good at math or to fail when it comes to arithmetic. That’s right: babies are born with an innate sense of numbers! That's an impressive feat for little ones who haven't yet learned how to count, or even speak. Scientists have found that babies who are good at determining the difference between large and small groups of items are likely to do better in math when they get older.

They’ve found that 6-month-old babies whose attention is held by changing number values on a screen are likely to have a better grasp of math skills three years later over their peers who showed no preference between changing number values and repeating number values. This shows that their early awareness of the difference between quantities contributes to a long-term ability to grasp mathematical concepts.

They call the ability a “primitive number sense,” pointing to babies' ability to indicate when one grouping is larger than another by mere sight as opposed to analytical assessment. A study of 48 six-month-old infants determined that babies who could tell the difference between large and small groupings had a tendency to look longer at a screen that would show groupings of increasing and decreasing numerical values as opposed to a screen that had the same number of items consistently placed in varying formations.

Three years later, these same infants were tested again as preschoolers and given a standardized math test. Children who placed high in infancy also placed high when they were older, revealing an inherent tendency towards math and quantitative abilities. This connection between interpretive numbers and later test results shows that children are born with an inclination to excel or do poorly in mathematics.

Can Number Sense be Developed at a Young Age?

Many parents are eager to help “develop” number sense in their children. Fact is, there are certain things that parents know instinctively and then there are things that you need to learn as you raise your children, like how to foster their individual interests and how to encourage them to explore things they may not be draw to naturally.

Teaching children number sense is one of the most important skills for parents and teachers to have. From numbers 1-10, counting, and even simple addition and subtraction to more complex topics such as shapes, colors and money, there are so many different ways children can be taught these basic concepts. When it comes to number sense, the first step is to determine inherent motivation and interest in the topic.

Identifying a baby's number sense is the first step in teaching them how to count. It’s also something you can do yourself, without a babysitter or a preschool. It’s not a complicated concept, and getting a feel for where they’re at in terms of number awareness can help you decide on next steps to engage them on the topic.

Do they have a natural inclination toward numbers to the point that they will want to explore the concept on their own? If not, what motivates them? Food, rewards like toys and gifts, a different engaging topic that you can relate to the subject you want them to learn about? As soon as you know their interests, you know how to guide their attention.

For example, my kid that had absolutely no interest in numbers instead expressed a deep interest in music. I was able to help him grasp the concept of numbers by playing on his musical skill: incorporating little drums in varying numbers into his space, adding and subtracting toddler drum sticks that he could play with, and counting keys on a small keyboard.

Assessing a Baby’s Number Sense

To spot “good number sense” in your own child, see if he or she pays attention when you move different amounts of items around on a tray, varying the amount that you add or subtract from groupings. Then, move the items around but keep the groupings consistent each time. Does he or she lose interest when they realize that you aren’t varying the amounts of items on the tray?

Better yet, if offered a small cup with three treats in it or a small cup with two treats in it, will he or she select the larger quantity? That’s an incredible basic test that can be extremely telling.

Some other excellent ways to exercise number sense in babies include incorporating numbers into daily tasks, counting their fingers and toes. You can also play with groups of kids and count each off, group them on opposite sides of a room in varying numbers, and even use connect-the-dots as they get older to help improve number recognition which can easily help exercise number sense with basic number problems in preschool.

Related Senses that Babies are Born with

A related question that many parents ask is whether or not babies have an innate sense of passing time. Yes! Many researchers have noted that babies appear to have an innate sense of passing time, as well as a sense of direction. Babies don’t just point in random directions when you’re crawling around, they follow the path of the sun and the moon. Cool, huh?

In any case, there is a certain amount of mathematical ability that will always remain innate. This is all good news for parents of elementary kids who just don't seem to “get” those multiplication tables—you can all rest easy knowing it's likely NOT due to your failure to screen enough Count Von Count or Baby Einstein when they were little.

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Helping parents live simple and satisfying lives. Our homeschooling family loves to learn, and in our spare time (hah!) we RV travel and flip houses.

Boise, ID
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