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I am a father of a 10 month old son. I love to observe my son acquiring and developing new skills like crawling, responding to questions, and imitating other's behavior. Moreover, I was flabbergasted when I witnessed my son operating our TV remote.

As a recent development, I observed a new skill in him yesterday. He crawls on carpet freely with out any problem, he enjoys it. Yesterday, we (my wife and I) wanted to see how he would respond to crawling in grass. We left him in the middle of a small grass field. I think he felt the grass poking his palm and knees and then ,to our surprise, we saw him for the first time standing himself straight up without any support and stood up for at least 20 seconds and then carefully came down to a sitting position, maintaining the balance. Our jaw dropped with that sight. I could not believe that my son stood up without our or any thing's support. With that event, I totally forgot to capture the sight in my phone. I waited for 15 more minutes after that with my phone camera on to try capture the same sight again, but all in vain. He did not like the grass to crawl on, in the first attempt I guess.

Now my questions are:

  • How and when do infants & toddlers create or develop the "survival instinct"? By survival instinct I mean my son wanted to avoid the grass and instantly he got the instinct or a reflex to stand up.

  • Is this behavior part of the genetics of Homo Sapiens?

  • I am curious to know what else kids/infants/toddlers learn from instinct which was never taught to them?

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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Overview

While this could have been in an instinct as a very loose definition of the term, it definitely wasn't a survival instinct. A survival instinct usually kicks in when an organism requires one of the several physiological needs we find in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Often this is in fight or flight situations rather than situations of discomfort. Discomfort is more of a personal preference. Personally, I like laying in grass while your son doesn't.

This was most likely a logical conclusion from a basic scientific method.

  1. This feels bad
  2. How can I stop this?
  3. I've seen dad do that motion before.
  4. That will get my hands and knees off this itchy substance (hypothesis).
  5. Let's try that (stands up, experiment)
  6. It worked, but now my legs are shaky.
  7. If I sit down only my covered bum will touch this annoying substance.
  8. (Sits down)

To answer your questions

  1. Instincts are ingrained from the very start. That's why babies cry for everything. At that moment, that's pretty much the only thing they can do to meet any one of their basic needs.
  2. Instincts are part of every organism's behavior, from protozoa to elephants. Standing is a human quality however, and that, along with opposable thumbs distinguishes us from the rest of nature.
  3. Crying, breathing, the desire for shelter. Take a look at examples of feral children. Whatever skills they have are the bare minimum for life.
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Nice apprehension. Thanks for the inputs. +1 –  dmahapatro Jun 24 '13 at 15:11
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That specific example is not a survival instinct. It is a learned skill - humans don't like discomfort, so will try to avoid it. Babies want to stand up - this is a part of normal development. Having extra impetus to try harder can help them manage it in a particular situation. For some it may be a surface they don't like, for others frustration at not being able to reach something etc.

Babies actually have survival instincts from the very start. For example, if you drop a baby in water it will hold its breath until its face is out of the water. Or if you let them fall backwards, they throw their arms outwards to try and break their fall.

The whole point about an instinct is that it does not develop - it is there from the start.

Learning survival skills is a whole separate thing...

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Thanks for the inputs. My instinct would never say to drop a baby in water, but I understood what you were aiming at. –  dmahapatro Jun 24 '13 at 15:09
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As a baby, the biggest "survival instinct" your child will actively develop after birth is the fear of falling. You've probably been dealing with your child wanting to roll over, sit up etc in the changing table. For the first few months that your child does this, you pretty much have to be in constant contact with your child, and definitely not beyond arm's length, when your child is virtually any distance above the ground without a secure railing.

This is for two reasons; first, your baby hasn't mastered the gross motor control needed to steady himself in these positions, and more importantly, he's outgrown some reflexes like the Moro reflex, and has not yet developed the conscious knowledge that falling hurts to replace it. That normally happens somewhere between 6 and 9 months, in parallel but slightly delayed from the motor skills that allow potentially harmful movements. So, your son should already have an aversion to going down steps or over ledges or dropoffs (even if he, like my own daughter, thinks crawling over Daddy's legs or similar obstacles is the most fun ever), and that's a survival instinct.

Another one comes in around the nine-month mark, and that's "stranger danger". My daughter, for instance, has no trouble smiling and waving to strangers while in her stroller with us pushing it. She doesn't take long to start crawling around in someone else's house to introduce herself to other people. However, she knows who Mommy, Daddy, Nana and Poppy (my wife's parents who live nearby and visit regularly) are, and even my own Mom and Dad (who live further away and visit less frequently) cannot just walk in, say "Hi" and pick her up off the floor. She needs time to adjust before she'll accept being in their arms instead of ours. This persists as babies learn to walk, even becoming more pronounced with children sticking very close to their parent when anyone else is nearby, and is more instinctual than learned.

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