Are Instagram moms trading their kids’ development for the aesthetics?

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Jan 3, 2022 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

‘Pink for girls, blue for boys’ has been a popular axiom in the starter pack for newbie parents. It still is, but given the due revolution on the gender and sexuality forefront, the guiding principle has retired to gender reveal parties as of late. With gender-creative parenting on the horizon comes the introduction of theybies—babies raised with they/them pronouns to foster a childhood free of norms on how one should dress, act and play. Deciding not to reveal the sex of their children at birth, parents of theybies seek to give them the ultimate autonomy of choosing their identity. Rightly so.

But on Instagram, the resultant quest for gender-neutral colours seems to have manifested alongside the rise of strategic minimalism. I’m talking about beautiful beiges, pristine taupes and immaculate creams—bleeding into everything from walls, floors and cribs to dressers, nightlights and baby monitors.

 

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Of course, no two nurseries are the same and there are still parents dotting rooms with trains, teddy bears and polka dots in bright yellows and reds. But a quick scroll through millions of posts under #nursery and #nurserydecor will plop you into a muted wonderland filled with macrame rainbows, elegant chandeliers and fluffy dreamcatchers.

 

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“Aesthetic moms,” the internet goes on to note. They love twinning with their kids and planning photoshoots with matching straw hats under the sun. They prefer chunky, knitted blankets and wooden toys over plastic ones. Backed with the aim of decorating nurseries as if they were cradled among the clouds, their colour palette is restricted to white, beige and tans. Red? Oh yeah, they love him from That ’70s Show. According to Twitter, aesthetic moms are also known for ignoring their kid’s request for a PAW Patrol birthday cake—instead opting for a 4-layered, barely-iced one decorated with twigs, leaves and jute banners for the ✨ aesthetics ✨.

“Being a mother can get chaotic quick,” reads one of the top posts under the hashtags. “So if you’re going to be in a room with a screaming baby might as well make it a peaceful one!” It makes sense… until science decides to butt in. How do visual histories impact our perceptions later in life? Is it true that babies see only black and white in the first place? Simply put, “what will happen to a generation of gray-bies raised in a world devoid of colour?”

According to Doctor Alice Skelton, a developmental colour scientist who works as a research fellow at the University of Sussex’s Baby Lab, it’s a myth that infants can only see in black and white. In fact, they have the same three colour receptors in their eyes as adults, but these receptors don’t work the same way. In an interview with WIRED, Doctor Skelton noted how babies can’t reliably see blues and yellows until they’re three months old. However, many are able to make out bright reds from birth. “Their colour vision is generally worse than an adult, so they need a much bigger difference between two colours to be able to see it,” she said. “It’s kind of like the saturation dial on the world has been turned down.”

In short, a colour needs to be fairly saturated for babies to see it. This is why toys targeted towards the demographic tend to be doused in bright, primary colours. According to Doctor Skelton, black and white toys also appeal to infants—given how they are also drawn to contrast. “Babies like high contrast because their vision is just generally poorer and the world is a lot blurrier, so it’s a reliable thing that they can pick out of the fog,” she explained. This essentially means beige and taupe nurseries “look just the same as gray or white” to babies.

 

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Now, before the internet jumps on with the sarcastic “does mother really know best?” version of the popular eulogy, let’s look at the role colour plays in our childhood. In 2007, a group of Norwegian scientists published a paper where they studied people born above the Arctic Circle—comparing those who had been born in autumn, when prolonged darkness exposed them to loads of artificial light, to those born in summer when there is no night. The study concluded that adults born in autumn showed “an overall decrease in colour sensitivity”—thereby arguing that “the environmental impact on colour vision may act early in infancy, in all likelihood during the first months of life.”

Doctor Skelton, however, explained that it’s more about how much and what impacts our visual perceptions in life rather than if it impacts it. The study, as noted by WIRED, clearly shows that there are ways that our perception is shaped by our visual history, but we’re still clueless about its impact on certain aspects of our lifestyle. “We can’t really say whether a baby with a bright blue nursery will grow up to perceive the world differently from a baby with a tan one,” the publication added.

That being said, Doctor Skelton believes beige and taupe nurseries aren’t “optimised” for babies, adding how finer details in monochromatic environments are practically invisible to infants. According to the expert, it’s probably okay to set up neutral nurseries “but it’s just a bit of a shame.” Sure, these babies are not holed up in 73 feet-high towers like Rapunzel and will definitely be exposed to plenty of colours out in the real world, but Doctor Skelton thinks people are underestimating babies and their vision. “Babies want to be looking at stuff, and they’re driven to seek out new information, so it’s a bit of a shame to not offer that to them,” she said. The expert has also demonstrated that the demographic spends longer time looking at intense colours than those that are washed out.

Yes, aesthetic moms, you might’ve been missing out on some parental hacks to keep your offspring engaged in your quest for aesthetics.

 

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On the other hand, Doctor Tricia Skoler, a psychology professor at City University of New York who studies infant brain development, loves everything about the neutral nursery trend. According to the expert, parents will be better able to foster joint attention to their children if they have a shared interest in their environment. “You don’t want to set up situations that we see so often where you have one area of the home that’s the child’s space and then you have the adult space somewhere else,” she explained. “I like to see toys that fit into the home, that it’s okay to leave your toys out because they look good.”

So, the final verdict? Aesthetic nurseries may be stimulating for Instagram but not as much for the ones that end up sleeping in them. But it’s not much of a concern—as long as babies are not locked in there all day. However, if you want an Instagrammable nursery but are worried about your child’s development, Doctor Skelton advises high-contrast prints with large detail rather than fine ones. “There are lots of rules of thumb—babies like to look at odd ones out, so if you had four flowers one way and then an upside-down flower, they’d find that engaging to look at,” she told WIRED.

After all, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to parenting. All science can do is merely nudge parents into what they deem best for their children. And, if you ask me, I still visualise those glow-in-the-dark galaxy stickers on my ceiling when I find it hard to sleep.

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