How verbal interaction with babies and toddlers leads to a lifetime of benefits.

10-month-old Sasha sits on the living room floor, playing with her toys.  Dad looks at her from the couch where he is folding laundry and smiles at her.  “You love playing with your doggie, don’t you?  I think he’s your favorite.” Sasha waves the dog enthusiastically in the air, and responds with a stream of babbling.  Noticing her response, Dad continues:   “We’ll take the dog for a walk before dinner.  Maybe we’ll see more doggies.”  Sasha beams at her father.
 
 18-month-old Ethan is in the kitchen with his mother while she is washing dishes.  He watches her, curious about what she’s doing, but she doesn’t look up. The dog’s water bowl catches his eye and he begins to splash in it.  That gets Mom’s attention, but briefly.  “No!” she says, and moves the bowl to the counter.  She returns to her task and Ethan wanders away.
 
If these interactions are typically how Sasha and Ethan interact with their parents throughout the day, there may be some surprising differences in their futures, based on what we know about children’s language development.  Well-known research by Kansas University psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children under four years old whose parents spoke to and with them frequently had been exposed to as many as thirty million more words compared to families with less communication. The long-term results were startling:  children from the language-rich homes had larger vocabularies, were better prepared for school, and, when visited again as third-graders, had stronger academic skills.
 
The early years of childhood are a period of tremendous growth as the brain changes and wires itself in response to experiences.  Parents and other caregivers can use simple daily activities to help build emerging language skills, even with newborns.  Such interactions not only help a child’s ability to communicate and think, but they strengthen the parent-child relationship.
  • Watch and listen to see how baby is communicating what she may be thinking and feeling. Responding to your baby’s verbalizations and facial expressions through both soothing words and touch helps her feel secure.  This interaction between parent and child lays the groundwork for future conversations.
  • Speak face-to-face and slow down your rate of speech, which allows infants to match shapes to sounds.
  • When your baby begins “babbling,” repeat emerging sounds and words back to them. Such interaction encourages more verbalizing.
  • Read, sing, tell stories, use finger plays and nursery rhymes to help your child understand words and ideas. Combining a word with a gesture (“How big is my boy?” as you raise your arms) is one way to do this.
  • Talk…about everything. Narrate what you’re doing or what your child is doing as you play, run errands, take a walk, and interact with others. Respond when your child looks at something or someone with curiosity by providing simple information.
  • Ask and encourage open-ended questions, even before you expect a clear answer. This gives your child a chance to respond through pointing or looking at something. But avoid making talking a kind of test.
  • Use specific, descriptive language,as well as past and future tenses “Remember when we went to the zoo and saw the spotted giraffe?”.
  • Introduce books early and read often. Babies and toddlers won’t sit still for long stories.  But talking simply and briefly about the pictures is a good way to introduce books as part of your daily routine.
  • Listen up. Language is not all in the mouth. Be sure to get your child’s ears checked regularly by the pediatrician.
  • Don’t ignore any concerns. If your baby isn’t vocalizing or babbling, if your toddler has few words, doesn’t appear to understand you, or doesn’t engage with you, seek out a professional for more information.  Visit pathways.org to see a list of language milestones.
Thanks to funding from Kohl’s, The Parenting Center and the New Orleans Health Department have partnered with The Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail Initiative to launch a Talking is Teaching Campaign. This public awareness campaign is designed to spread the word about how enriching environments and interactions bolster brain development. Watch for the posters in waiting rooms and at bus stops with ideas for what to talk about and how to make every day moments count.
 
Lisa Phillips is a Parent Educator at the Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. For more information, call 504.896.9591, visit theparentingcenter.net or email [email protected].

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