Talking to Babies
How to Help Your Baby's Brain Develop
When my son was an infant, I developed a little ritual with him that helped me to get things done around the house while also keeping him entertained. The ritual was to put him in his umbrella stroller (a popular item at the time), and move him around with me from room to room as I did housework. I chattered to him all the while as I worked. The chatter was mostly grownup talk.
I would go over my plans with him, recite lists in my head, or talk about subjects that were of interest to me. I would show him what I was doing and describe my work as we went along pointing out objects in my hands and specific activities I was performing such as washing the dishes or folding laundry.
As I talked . . . and worked . . . I made a lot of eye contact with him and was quite expressive with my face and voice. He would smile and squeal, kick his legs, wave his arms, and sometimes get very still and seem to just listen. I figured that at the very least he would feel connected to me and enjoy the interaction, and I might actually get something done. There were many, many conversations over dishes and counter cleaning, as well as cooking, bed making, dusting, and laundry.
Looking back, I really cherish those times. What I didn’t know at the time is that talking to babies has a direct effect on their vocabulary development and language processing skills later in childhood, as well as overall achievement in school.
The evidence comes from several studies conducted that assess children’s vocabulary and language processing skills in the first 18 months of life. In one such study conducted by Anne Fernald of Stanford University, it was found that children begin acquiring language much earlier in life than was previously thought. Just through hearing rich and complex language early on, toddlers already have made many neural connections in the brain that are involved in the identification of vocabulary and conceptual connections between words by 18 months of age.
The experimental groups used in this study looked at the differences between children of higher and lower socio-economic families, and within those groups looked at the kinds of verbal interactions between parents and children in the first two years of life. What the studies found conclusively is that children from higher socio-economic backgrounds hear a great many more words from their parents, were engaged in conversational talk with parents much more often, and heard messages overall that were not related to children’s behavior, but were rich and descriptive in nature. The children from lower socio-economic backgrounds were 6 months behind the children of the higher SES backgrounds by the age of 2, and this gap continued to get wider as children got older and entered the school system.
What’s important about these studies is not that they are pointing a finger at parents from lower SES backgrounds, but more that parents in higher SES backgrounds feel the luxury and freedom to talk more to their children using complex, rich language, and that a lot of the early conversation is not oriented towards correcting behavior, but rather interacting. Any parent from any background can employ techniques of verbal communication with their infants and improve their children’s overall ability to achieve academically later on.
How it Works in the Brain
Kimberly Noble of Columbia University explains how these linguistic disparities show up in the brain. At birth, babies have about 100 billion neurons, and connections between these neurons are forming at a very fast rate in the first year of life. At the age of three, a child will have about 1,000 trillion connections in his brain. These connections are fostered and stimulated by the environment in which the child lives, and they continue to be strengthened or weakened by the child’s experiences. It follows that children exposed to more words, and complex connections between words, are likely to have more neural connections related to processing language than children who hear significantly less words. The first year of life is a huge window of opportunity to set children up for well-developed vocabulary and processing skills, and overall achievement later in life.
Implications for Early Intervention Programs
Based on the finding that language acquisition and processing begins in the first year of life, and that gaps occur before the age of 18 months for children from lower SES families, our focus on early intervention programs that are designed for children ages 3 and up are too late. A study conducted in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas spanning a decade found a significant correlation between the number of words a child’s parents had spoken to him by the age of three and his academic success at the age of nine. Children coming from higher SES families had heard 30 million more words than those from poorer backgrounds. We have to rethink how to help parents close up this gap much earlier.
Emotional Connectivity is an Important Factor
One caveat to the findings are that is has been found that spoken words must be child-directed, meaning the words must be directly spoken to them. Hearing words from television or radio or other devices does not create the same effects as hearing words directly from parents. This would suggest that the element of emotional connectivity involved in the verbal interaction is as important as the spoken words.
The kind of language used is also highly important. In the studies, children who heard words mostly directed toward behavior problems or criticism did not fare as well as children who heard words that were descriptive, complex, and delivered by a parent who was more involved in show and tell than corrective action. Again this suggests that along with the delivery of language using a wide array of words and connections, the emotional context of the interaction is important. Although the research doesn’t speak directly to the emotional aspect of these verbal interactions, I would suggest that the tone and character of the interaction is a significant factor in helping a young child make those neural connections in the brain that lead to higher levels of language processing.
Quick Guide for Talking to Babies
Start from day one.
Start talking to your infant right away. As Anne Fernald said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago this year, “You are building a mind, a mind that can conceptualize, that can think about the past and future.”
Don't brain it down.
Use rich complex language. You may get your baby’s attention with the sing-song approach that is often used by parents, but continue on with complex sentences and words. Don’t brain it down.
Connect the dots.
Talk about connections between things. Take the plate you’re washing and describe how washing it makes it clean, and then enthusiastically show baby the shine in the plate after you dry it. Talk about your immediate environment and point out objects and label them, and then describe what they are used for or what they do.
Talk expressively and make eye contact. Remember, this is a connective experience as much as it is about language acquisition.
Use ordinary situations.
Fit your conversations with baby into regular everyday activities. You don’t need to set aside a special time for this. Bring them along with you as you do things around the house.
Read and describe.
Reading to your baby for just 10 minutes a day is always a good idea. Even just looking at a book and talking about the pictures will work.
Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A. & Weisleder, A. (2013). SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Development Science, 16:2, 234-248.
Hart, B. & Risley, T.R (2004). The early catastrophe. Education Review, 77:1, 100-118.
Hoff, E. (2006). How social contexts support and shape language development. Developmental Review, 26, 55-88.
Neergaard, L. (2014). More talking, longer sentences help babies’ brains [AP: The Big Story]. Retrieved from http://bigstory.ap.org/article/more-talking-longer-sentences-help-babies-brains
(2014) In the beginning was the word: how babbling to babies can boost their brains [Child Development: The Economist]. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21596923-how-babbling-babies-can-boost-their-brains-beginning-was-word