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The highly gifted baby

Gifted and Twice-Exceptional
This article by Kathi Kearney points out the need to recognize the gifted early in life. It also discusses the lack of research and makes a strong case for more study of highly gifted infants. It offers a handful of references on high intelligence in the very young.

Author: Kearney, K.
Publications: Understanding Our Gifted
Publisher: Open Space Communications
Year: March/April, 1993

Just two weeks old, Daniel already was watching the faces of his parents intently when they spoke to him, trying to mimic the movement of their mouths. On a lark, Daniel’s father showed him a box of crayons, held up the blue one, and said “Blue.” To his utter astonishment, the baby clearly repeated, “Blue.” By 11 months, he learned the scientific names of 30 dinosaurs in a toy set he had been given. At age two, his parents took him to an aquarium with a small pool where young children could touch marine animals. Daniel reached out, grabbed another child’s wrist, and gently removed it from the pool, giving the child a lecture about respecting animals and not hurting them. Two years later, as he sat at the supper table eating a piece of chicken, he held up pieces of bone and tendon, asking his mother what they were for. When he realized they were part of what made the animal move, he said, “I think I’m not going to eat this any more,” and became a vegetarian.

Daniel’s baby brother, only four hours old, responded to his mother’s voice by lifting himself up off his chest and looking straight at her. The hospital nurse said she had never seen a newborn respond that way.

Daniel’s parents were not “hothouse parents” trying to create some sort of superbaby. They were a young struggling couple. His mother was a full-time homemaker; his father, a blue-collar worker. Their children’s advanced development was as much of a surprise to them as it was to others, and for a long time they did not fully understand what it meant. Daniel’s mother says, “It didn’t really occur to us what was happening – we’d never had a child before. We thought we were just a normal family.” Until Daniel’s mother took a course in gifted education on the way to her bachelor’s degree, and encountered a list of characteristics of gifted children, she had no idea Daniel was gifted. By then he was 10 years old. Scoring beyond the norms of standardized tests, he went on to produce original creative work in writing, visual arts, and the natural sciences, and as an adult retains his deep concern for moral and ethical issues.

Information about highly gifted infants is often scattered, retrospective, and anecdotal, although Hollingworth (1926) provided detailed descriptions of the babyhood of five children above 180 IQ and Feldman (1986) explores the infant development of several prodigies. We know relatively little about highly gifted babies because, unlike developmentally delayed or mentally handicapped children, gifted infants seldom have been studied. We simply do not have adequate data about this population.

Despite the lack of research, parents, pediatricians, psychologists, and preschool teachers or babysitters already have access to important developmental information about highly gifted infants that will assist these children now and in the future. Parents can keep detailed baby books, journals, audiotapes of early language development, and work samples for all of their children. Families with older identified highly gifted siblings are especially encouraged to keep developmental records on a new baby.

Pediatricians can educate themselves on the characteristics of young, early support and access to resources for their families. Often the pediatrician is the first person to notice advanced development. Psychologists who evaluate young, highly gifted children should consider administering the Stanford-Binet (Form L-M). [See UOG, 4(4), pp. 1, 8-10.] In a study of 150 infants, Lewis and Michalson (1985) found that this measure administered at 36 months located many children later determined to be verbally and quantitatively gifted at the age of six.

Because they work with groups of infants and young children with a wide range of abilities, preschool teachers and babysitters sometimes notice advanced development before parents do. More than one highly gifted toddler has been referred for testing by his or her daycare teacher or sitter.

Neither the political nor fiscal climate supports research on highly gifted infants or intervention for these children and their families. Someday that priority may change. And when it does, such humble materials as a baby book, an audiotape of early language development or a two year old’s work samples may provide essential information that will help many other families. In the mean time, families like Daniel’s will continue to nurture highly gifted babies who grow to adulthood with unique abilities, experiences, and perspectives, the foundations of which were part of their developmental trajectory from the earliest moments of life.


Feldman, D.H. (1986), Nature’s gambit: Child prodigies and the development of human potential. New York: Basic Books.

Hollingworth, L.S. (1926), Gifted children: Their nature and nurture. New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, M., & Michalson, L. (1985). The gifted infant. In J. Fremnan (Ed.), The psychology of gifted children. Chichester. John Wiley.

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