How you talk with your baby is more important than how much

By Stefanaki Evgenia, SLP, OM, Prompt Trained

How do you speak in your baby;

How you talk with your baby is more important than how much.

Speak with your baby in a certain way, new research shows, and your baby is far more likely to pick up on language. The difference is big — more than double the vocabulary by age 2.

In a study, led by Nairán Ramírez-Esparza and Patricia Kuhl, researchers wanted to know to what extent parentese helps babies develop language. They had a hunch that how you talk with your baby is more important than how much.

The researchers recorded families’ conversations in their homes. The team looked at whether the babies heard standard adult speech or parentese. They looked at what happened if one adult was talking with the baby vs. more than one adult at a time.

Babies who heard more “one-on-one parentese” shot ahead of the others in language development. Around age 1, they babbled more than babies who heard less one-on-one parentese. When the tots turned 2, parents checked off a list of 680 words (a standard inventory) to report how many words their children spoke.

Babies who had heard the most one-on-one parentese had a much bigger vocabulary than those who had heard the least: 433 words vs. 168 words.

The brain is electrified by face-to-face interaction

Language learning was more effective when one adult was speaking to one child. Talk directly to your baby. If baby simply overhears someone talking, that doesn’t provide the same boost in vocabulary or language proficiency. Neither does playing audio or video of someone talking. The brain is electrified by face-to-face interaction, Dr. Patricia Kuhl has shown. The presence or absence of that social connection, she argues, determines whether a baby’s brain is open or closed to learning language.

It’s not just talk, talk, talk at the child!

Rather than talking nonstop at your child, you want to snuggle in close and have a conversation with baby about whatever you’re doing. “It’s not just talk, talk, talk at the child. It’s more important to work toward interaction and engagement around language. You want to engage the infant and get the baby to babble back. The more you get that serve and volley going, the more language advances.” Dr. Patricia Kuhl has shown.

Sounds good. But, uh, newborns just seem to lie there, looking around. Holding a conversation with them can feel awkward to new parents.

So what do you talk about? Here are a few ideas:

Be a tour guide

I’m not naturally very talkative, so it’s been very helpful for me to think of myself as a tour guide. I talk about the things my baby sees and seems interested in. (Gazing at something is the main way newborns communicate what they’re interested in.) “This is brick. It’s a deep red color. It feels rough, doesn’t it? Brick.” I explain the things that are about to happen to my baby. “Let’s put on your shirt now. Right arm in the right sleeve...”

Tell stories

Make it part of your bedtime routine to tell your baby the story of her day. Some people are great at spinning tales, but you don’t have to be. Your story could go, “Once upon a time, there was a little baby named Baby. In the morning, she drank some milk. And then her daddy changed her diaper and put on her clothes. She wore a green shirt with a bunny. Then Baby and Daddy went for a walk in the warm fall sun. They saw red leaves and yellow leaves and green leaves. Daddy was really hoping Baby would fall asleep. For lunch, the daddy ate some soup. Baby held onto a big carrot and waved it around a little bit. And then it was time for sleep.” The end!

Read more: Language Strategies For Parents | Reading Books with the Right Way

Evgenia Stefanaki, SLP, OM, has the private practice "All for Speech Center" and is a nationally certified and licensed Speech & Language Pathologist. She is also PROMPT© trained and holds specialization in orofacial myofunctional therapy. She writes on the blog about speech & language disorders and orofacial disorders.

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