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photography by mckenzie james

Can how you deliver a baby affect its attention span? It might seem far-fetched, but recent research by York University ­psychology Professor Scott Adler indicates the answer is yes.

The study is the first of its kind to examine how birth ­experience can influence an infant’s brain development. Adler and graduate student Audrey Wong-Kee You, who led the research, conducted two experiments involving ­different groups of three-month-old infants. The babies’ eye movements were monitored as an indication of what caught their attention, since eyes cannot move to where someone’s attention is not directed. Thus, disruptions or changes in the mechanisms involved in attention would manifest in subsequent eye movements.

The first experiment tested the spatial attention of 24 babies by presenting a peripheral cue to the edge of their line of vision.

The stimulus-driven, reflexive attention of the babies born via caesarean section was found to be about 33 per cent slower than that of the babies who were vaginally delivered. Adler says that finding raised the question of whether the babies were slower at focusing their attention on an image, which is a mental process, or slower at moving their eyes, which is a behaviour. So they did another experiment – a visual expectation task – with 12 different babies.

This time researchers studied voluntary eye movements. They found no disparity in the speed, suggesting no difference in physical structures.

Researchers then measured how long it took for the babies to look at an image they weren’t anticipating and, again, they noticed infants delivered by C-section took longer.

Adler says these findings are important considering ­C-section births are on the rise. He suggests further research into this attention difference should be conducted by examining whether the C-section was due to birthing complications or by choice, and whether it has a long-term impact. This could offer insight into the reasons for differences in spatial attention in children.

The Hallward Fund at Toronto Foundation has provided funding to support the next stage of Adler’s study.

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