Not unlike cats and their primal fear of cucumbers (check it out on YouTube. We’ll wait), a recent study has demonstrated that babies are inherently terrified of snakes, spiders, and anything vaguely serpentine or arachnoid. Which means you may want to cut back on the over-the-top Halloween decorations. Or, at the very least, keep your giant foam spiders clear of the nursery.
In a study that involved terrifying babies for science, European researchers showed 6-month-olds images of snakes and spiders alongside images of flowers and fish, and found that their pupils dilated in terror only when they saw snakes and spiders. Pupil dilation is one of the best ways for scientists to tell when a very young child is stressed, because babies don’t respond to fear in the same way as older children and adults. “Change in size of the pupils is an important signal for the activation of the noradrenergic system in the brain, which is responsible for stress reactions,” said Stefanie Hoehl of the University of Vienna in a press release.
From a scientific perspective, this study is fascinating because it begins to resolve a longstanding debate as to when children acquire fear of dangerous animals. Although some scientists have long claimed that fear of snakes and spiders is a matter of nurture, this study is among the first to demonstrate that at least part of the stress response to venomous animals is likely a matter of nature. Most western 6-month-olds have never been exposed to snakes and spiders, and so have no particular reason to fear them. Unless that fear is innate.
But from a parenting perspective, perhaps there’s a more practical takeaway. Americans are projected to spend a frankly obnoxious $9.1 billion on Halloween in 2017. And it’s not all candy corn and goofy masks. Spooky decorations are a highlight of the season, and parents of very young children tend to assume that there’s no way a dangling spider or 20-foot inflatable snake could scare their babies. What do babies know, after all, about responding to threats? A lot, apparently.
So if you must decoupage your home with cackling witches and clouds of foreboding bats, consider keeping your holiday spirit out of the baby’s bedroom. His or her pupils will thank you.