'Babies': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
More researcher smarm than newborn charm.
2/21/2020

Netflix's six-part docuseries tediously explores the science of infant development.

Babies gave me literal nightmares. After watching the nutrition-themed second episode of this six-part Netflix docuseries on the science of infant development, I dreamt that I neglected my (non-existent) newborn, forgetting to feed it and keeping it zipped up in a toiletry bag all day. "But doesn't it need, like, iron and zinc and stuff?!" I pleaded into the dreamworld void while also bolstering the show's fifth-episode assertion that sleep is a memory storage mechanism. Babies, however, isn't nearly as terrifying as its synaptic sequels. In fact, it's downright sluggish.

Filmed over three years, Babies follows the early months of 15 newborns and elucidates the research of 36 scientists — a troublesome ratio for my attention span. In full disclosure, I'm a developmental psych enthusiast with a graduate degree in education. Few of the ideas posited in Babies were new to me, as I enjoy reading about the neurological growth of small humans from blastocyst to little kid. I was ready to gobble up this series as easily as any tot gobbles up random bits on the floor. Yet, even I found myself frequently drifting away from the sleepy narrative, which focuses less on the wonder of infant development and more on the grind of scientific research.

For every awe-inspiring moment showcasing a newborn or toddler breaking through a neuromotor barrier, we're privy to at least three times as many scenes of an American or European researcher describing their theories, experiments or findings in excruciating detail. Even more frustratingly, Babies presents these findings as ultimate truth instead of just one notch on the continuum of global research. Science isn't a monolith, after all. (Admittedly, I'm not impressed with some of the guesswork "conclusions" drawn from these experiments, such as when one researcher declares her dubious theory on language acquisition as universal fact.) In turn, their earnest, no-duh platitudes don't strengthen my confidence. ("Food is a fundamental part of who we are as humans,” announces one breast milk researcher. Huh, you don't say?) I came here for the babies and the science, but not necessarily the scientists themselves.

The oldest science is astronomy; the newest is neuropsychology. For thousands of years, we've been much more comfortable (and capable of) studying the farthest objects in the universe than the closest ones: our own brains. The minds of our young, in particular, have been traditionally seen as tabula rasas, thus rendering kids ripe for the various crackpot theories that have ruled childrearing since the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Babies doesn't really care about any of that, as it spends no time delving into the historical context of its raison d'etre. Taking a more fly-on-the-wall than didactic approach to the subject, Babies flits between intimate footage of predominantly British families adjusting to life with new babies and dry talking heads of scientists from across disciplines spelling out their careers. Each 50-minute episode zeroes in on a unique topic of babyhood, from mobility to emotional attachment. 

Babies takes a non-linear approach when highlighting the families, editing in footage of infants and toddlers as dictated by the episode's theme, not the chronological progress of the child. Thus, it's jarring to watch little Pascoe advancing to the walking stage in one episode, only to see him struggle with "fourth trimester" sleep issues in the next. This choppiness ultimately denies viewers the opportunity to bond with the babies as characters, so we instead start seeing them as objects to "prove" the developmental theories proposed by the episode's featured researchers. The filmmakers also forgo a unifying narrator or any visuals/infographics that could amplify the urgency of our learning experience. I find babies fascinating. I wish Babies could better engage me with them. 

Some of the findings are, indeed, intriguing. Researchers have discovered that oxytocin, the neurotransmitter primarily responsible for parental bonding, can be just as high for committed caregivers of any gender as it is for birth mothers. They have also found that micrometals are integral to babies' memory development and may correlate with later IQ scores. My favorite account of scientific discovery comes from Emory University anthropologist Michelle Lampl, whose radical system of baby length measurement undid common beliefs in the field regarding the rate of infant physical growth. (As it turns out,  growth does not happen in a direct curve over time, but in brief spurts that may occur over a 24-hour period.)

Babies disappoints not only because the science is too central to the storytelling, but also because the science presented here takes a Western-centric approach without the producers acknowledging it as such. Many of the researchers hail from the U.S., Israel or Europe and no doubt their conclusions include minute sociological biases influenced by their cultures of origin. I was surprised to see no infancy researchers from Asia, Africa or South America, save one woman who works in Singapore. While Babies bears no relation to the 2010 French documentary of the same name that features infants living in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the U.S., I wish it borrowed from that film's global ethos.

There is no doubt babies can seem like unknowable mewling creatures at times. But maybe their mystery is part of their charm.

Executive producer: Jane Root
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)