Seattle's Child

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Baby science

Researchers in the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences need local babies to learn more about infant and child development.

Baby science: Enroll in UW infant research

There's benefits to families and the broader community

Years ago, I sat with my baby on my lap in a small soundproof booth tucked in the back of a University of Washington research lab. My curiosity got us there. 

A young research assistant outfitted my daughter with tiny headphones, and, as we sat together, a toy mechanical monkey would occasionally light up in front of us, grinning wildly and banging its little metal cymbals to my daughter’s squealing delight.

The monkey was my then-5-month-old’s introduction to science.

In a nutshell, researchers played sounds in her ear through the headphones. The delicate equipment registered when she heard a sound, setting the monkey in action. We found out her hearing was fine, and I felt a little pride in knowing she had contributed to the growing body of research on infant hearing. The experience was so enjoyable for both of us that we signed up to participate in two other infant studies.

I’m far from unique in my curiosity. About 1,800 infants and children are enrolled in UW child development research each year, and on average, 650 families of infants and toddlers are assigned to take part in studies each month.

Why participate in research?

Participating in child development research through the university’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) has several benefits. Parents gain increased awareness about their child’s growth and behavior, learn about resources to enrich a child’s early learning environment and get paid for their participation. For most kids, it’s a fun outing. And then there’s the element of giving back.

“The largest benefit of participating in research is undoubtedly the contribution to science itself,” says Dr. Christina Zhao, a Research Assistant Professor at the UW’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. Zhao directs the Lab for Early Auditory Perception (LEAP) housed within I-LABS.

“Our understanding of early human development is made possible by generations of children and families who participated and continue to participate in research,” Zhao says. “These families advance the world’s understanding of human growth and behavior, essentially laying the groundwork for policies and programs related to child health, education, and welfare.” 

Labs need infants and toddlers

Infant and toddler participants are almost always needed in I-LABS studies. 

“Right now, we have 15 different labs requesting infant and child participants,” says Dr. Ellen Levi, who manages the university’s study participant pool. Infants as young as six weeks are needed for some studies, and researchers will soon be looking at newborns. Many studies are trying to understand what typical child development looks like while others seek to gain a better understanding of autism, Fragile X, Down Syndrome, speech and language delays and disorders, and deafness,” adds Levi.

What happens in a study?

What an infant or older child will do as a research study participant depends on the study. For example, Tori Hennessy pointed to the Sibling Language Development currently underway as an example of what happens. The study examines the underlying neural mechanisms of infant language development with families. Hennessy manages the LEAP’s daily activities. The researchers on the study are recruiting infants aged 3 to 5 months with at least one sibling over the age of 3.

Participating families visit the lab four times over a year. Here’s what happens: 

First, the older sibling undergoes a one-hour language and behavioral assessment. 

“During the initial appointment, big siblings work with one of our research speech and language pathologists to assess their language skills,” says Hennessy. “The child may be asked to identify pictures, repeat sounds or sentences, and chat with the SLP about their favorite toy. We take lots of breaks and provide snacks as needed. Parents are encouraged to observe the whole session from our adjoining, family-friendly observation room.” 

Multiple sessions to recors

Then, over three sessions at 6, 12, and 14 months, the infant sibling is scheduled for neural recording.

“We use magnetoencephalography (MEG) technology to understand how infants process and learn speech,” says Hennessy. “An MEG recording is safe, silent, and the perfect brain-imaging tool for babies since it’s much like sitting in a fancy infant car seat. Infants in the study listen to speech sounds, and the MEG records how their brain responds to those sounds. During the recording, infants are entertained by a highly trained research assistant (AKA a toywaver) with a variety of toys. 

“While the infants listen passively to the auditory stimuli, we are collecting valuable data about what is happening in their brain,” says Hennessy. “An infant’s capacity to process and differentiate between speech sounds allows us to illustrate their language development trajectory.” 

How to get involved

Erica Stevens, assistant director of the UW I-LABS, says the University of Washington has a vibrant research community. The labs have developed a simple way for families to volunteer for studies. Families opt in to the labs’ participant pool, a database shared by research labs exploring questions about human development. 

“We are constantly recruiting people of all ages and all backgrounds to join our pool,” says Stevens. “Parents can enroll their children in the pool as young as newborns by filling out an intake form. Any age is welcome.”

You can register your child in the Communication Studies Participant Pool at You can also call 206-616-6210 or email to learn more.

Read more:

Infant hearing screening device developed by UW being used in Kenya

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at