Improved focus helps children to learn skills and acquire language, and the brain is at its most adaptable early in life.
Scientists say they have found the first evidence that infants as young as 11 months can be taught to focus attention, making it easier for them to learn new skills.
The study by University of London, Birkbeck, found that those who were shown a series of computer programmes, encouraging them to focus on different parts of the screen, performed better than other babies in tests to measure powers of concentration.
Researchers said the findings were significant, because improved focus helps children to learn skills and acquire language, and the brain is at its most adaptable early in life.
However, further studies will be required to see whether improvements are long-lasting.
In the experiment, 42 babies were split into two groups, for five laboratory visits, and either shown computer programmes, which encouraged them to track the progress of moving targets, or television cartoons.
Afterwards, all the infants were given a battery of tests used to measure concentration, when those who had undergone “brain training” able to focus longer on specific images and to play with toys, without getting distracted.
Researcher Sam Wass, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Sciences, described the findings as “very exciting”.
He said: “We know the brain is more plastic early on, so an impact at this stage could potentially make a big difference to a child’s abilities later on. We already know that the early years of school are very important; what we have shown for the first time is that it is possible that difference can be made at an even younger age.”
Concentration uses the frontal regions of the brain, which are much less developed in infants and young children than they are in adults, making them more easily distracted.
Further studies will attempt to establish the impact of brain training is in the longer term, starting with infants most likely to suffer from difficulties with attention and learning, such as those born prematurely.
Researchers say if long term success is shown, specially designed computer programmes could help all children – but they believe some parents may be wary of the idea.
Mr Wass said: “Parents want to do everything they can for their child, but often they don’t like the idea of fiddling about with baby’s brains, and they don’t like the idea of putting them in front of computers.”
He added: “We love the innocence of the early years: the question is, do we want to leave those intact or do we follow the science, which suggests that if we want to help children’s development, the earlier we start the better?”