Study says this is how you should talk to your baby
We've also included how to know if you're doing it right.
We know the importance of cultivating ways of effective communication with child. And it’s even more important that parents do this in their little one’s crucial early years, when they are developing across all fronts, including speech and language. But why is one mom suggesting that parents encourage their child’s linguistic development by talking to them like they would to a puppy?
Parents, if you have a pet puppy and a baby, you might find the experience of talking to both of them quite similar. After all, neither can speak back to you (yet, in the case of the baby!) and are dependent on you for well-being. Also both are supremely cute!
That’s exactly what mommy Elissa Strauss experienced with her 18-month-old toddler, in an article on the importance of nurturing language development in toddlers.
Writing to CNN, she explains that both dogs and babies have a “baby schema”: the right mix of a big head, round face and large eyes. A face which, regardless of animal, us humans perceive as delightfully cute, and spurs us to look after and love these beings.
However, she goes on to say that the difference between puppy and baby, “is potential consequences. Nobody tells you how important it is to talk to your dog. Everybody tells you how crucial it is to talk to your baby.”
As a result, anxiety sets in for parents when looking to “communicate” with their babies. Should I reply to my baby’s babbles? Should I speak in baby language or adult talk? Do I have to constantly narrate everything I do so my baby learns how to talk?
Research focusing on the significance of speaking to babies and toddlers has found that a child’s brain grows rapidly during the initial 36 months of life.
Speaking to them excites those connections, giving them the ability to process language. Basically, the more words a baby hears, the better her brain connections become!
Alice Honig is the professor emerita in the department of human development and family science at Syracuse University. According to her, “back and forth responsiveness” is key while speaking with a baby or toddler, because, in her words, it’s a “real intimate connection”.
In terms of young babies, parents can try to make a gentle “coo” sound. Be patient, wait for it… and eventually, your baby will respond with a “coo”, too.
Honig, who also co-wrote “Talking With Your Baby”, said parents and caretakers should practice the “coo” sound while the baby’s still young.
Yup, even if your little one can’t respond with a “coo” immediately!
She explains that cooing is a signal to the baby that “I’m important. Somebody is talking to me. I have to focus.” You’ll be surprised how quickly they learn – in less than a month, your baby will be able to focus instantly as you speak to them.
Honig also recommends changing the “coos” to words, and then sentences as babies grow. However, that doesn’t mean you should stop saying in what baby talk experts term as “parentese.” That is, the high pitched, long voweled, short consonants sounds which we connect to affection – which we sometimes also use to speak to puppies with!
While it may seem that parentese is silly or just “acting cute”, there are real benefits to the baby of using parentese. Nicole Overy, an American speech-language pathologist, summarises them as below:
- Parentese supports babies in learning language. Stretching vowel sounds and changing the pitch helps babies to understand which part of the word is the start and end. The extra emphasis on sounds also let babies learn a clear model of sounds which forms a word. According to a 1997 study from the University of Washington, exaggerated vowel sounds also help babies to differentiate vowels and different sounds from one another.
- Talking with your baby face-to-face, seeing them eye-to-eye also helps them learn how to interact with other people.
- Enables them to practise motor planning and learn how to talk. One study from Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington found something interesting when they scanned the brains of babies while parents talked to them in parentese. As expected the language areas of the brain were stimulated — including the movement-planning too! ) areas light up as well! These findings mean that babies are actually practising the right motions to make speech while as young as 7 months – far from actual, developed speech.
Overall, babies just enjoy exaggerated vowels, too. It’s a great way to get them to hear you. Can you imagine speaking to them like an adult? They probably wouldn’t find it interesting and opt for a nap soon.
When it comes to parentese, there is one key thing parents should remember: emphasise your speech, don’t simplify it. That means avoiding incorrect pronunciation (“Wook at de little cutie!”) and focussing on correct examples of speech (“Look at the little cutie!”) instead.
In addition, you shouldn’t shorten sentences or say grammatically incorrect sentences, either. A good example is saying “Dolly want milk?” and not “Does the dolly want milk?” as you have fun with your baby and their doll.
Remember, parents, it’s okay if sentences like “Does the Dolly want milk?” appear complicated to babies. They set up strong basics and will enable your kids to learn the patterns of language use easier as they grow up.
- expressive language, meaning you can respond by speaking,
- and receptive language, showing that you can understand what was said.
For example, an 18-month-old might not be able to make words or sentences. However, imagine if they did something to help you by just overhearing a topic!
In Strauss’ own experience, she was talking to her husband about feeding her dog. To her pleasant surprise, her 18-month-old proactively took a dog bowl towards the food – a good sign her baby is on the right track of developing receptive language skills.
Honig encourages parents to direct their attention to receptive language. She clarifies that receptive language is how parents can assess a child’s understanding of her surroundings, what is happening, and what others are saying to her.
She recommends parents and caregivers to nurture their baby’s receptive skills by asking questions. Particularly, those with single answers, like “Apple or Orange?,” or “Happy or sad?”
Strauss feels that questions involving emotions are also a plus! These questions help your baby learn how to label and eventually understand their own feelings.
In addition, parents ought to also ask their little ones open-ended questions which drive their brains to think critically and creatively. Questions with no obvious answers will also tell children that their opinion is important.
A good place to start would be asking toddlers a way to go around a puddle in a park by themselves or if can use a handful of clay to do something. Toddlers will often respond with their actions – despite their lack of words.
But when would you know what to do? According to Honig, “It depends. Let your child teach you where your child is at.”
15 years ago, researchers discovered that underprivileged kids tend to hear roughly 30 million less words before they turn three years old, when compared to richer kids. Because of this, children from low-income families tend to be underdeveloped, and were less likely to do well at school.
Over time, many policies and initiatives were made so that young children hear more words while young. However, even if the research and initiatives are important, word gap isn’t about quantity. Rather, when speaking to babies and toddlers, it’s quality that’s more important.
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is a professor of psychology at Temple University, and has written several books on early childhood development. She says that based on research, scientists have concluded that “the types of conversations we have with children matter more than the number of words.”
Hirsh-Pasek agrees with Honig, emphasizing that parents should strive to speak to their toddlers and make it feel as though they were chatting. She explains that responding, and listening to one another “is really important to human species”, as if it was a “human glue”, which “matters for building brain area, whereas the number of words don’t.”
But please don’t tell your babies about every single detail about life, says Hirsh-Pasek. Instead, parents should worry about something everyone is guilty of today: too much screen time.
She explains that while a lot about toddlers’ screen time has been researched, the important thing, “with respect to language and conversations, is not kids’ media use [but rather] adult media use. The more we are constantly looking down at our cell phone, the more we turn off, the more they get detached from conversation.”
Hirsh-Pasek is urging parents to keep clear of their smart gadgets as much as possible at night or during the weekends. That way, parents are better equipped to engage in a conversation with their toddler – or even begin one themselves.