Monday, March 3, 2014

Goo-Goo Ga Ga! Why you should talk to your baby!

How do children learn language?

One of the best ways to predict a child's success and ability to learn and read in school is their vocabulary size when they enter kindergarten. It is incredibly important for the language learning that parents talk to their young children. "The key to early learning is [...] a child’s exposure to language spoken by parents and caretakers from birth to age 3, the more the better." (NYTimes)

The way that babies learn how to speak is by imitating language that they hear and that is spoken to them. But TV and media is not a substitution for a real human!

"Educational" TV?

Recent research has shown that infants that watch "educational" baby DVDs and shows may learn fewer words than other children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently stated that there is no such thing as "educational TV" for children under 2. They have a huge battle to fight in America on that front though, as "90% of parents reported that their children under 2 watch some TV. And more than half of parents said they think educational television programming is important for their young child." (IT's NOT!!)

Yes, Sesame Street has been shown to be beneficial for children older than 2 - it does contribute to improved language and social skills - but NOT for children younger than 2. Another huge problem with letting your baby watch TV is that it cuts down on their time spent in actual human interactions; they have less "talk-time." A study found that "12-to-18-month-old babies learned more words from interacting with mom and dad than from watching videos marketed to infants." (Time)

It is recommended that children under the age of 2 should watch absolutely NO TV. This also means you need to reduce their exposure to "secondhand TV" - which is when the TV is on in the background, or you are watching but not actively exposing it to your little one. 60% of families report that the television is always or often on, even when no one is watching. However, even if you're not watching, your little one is! Having the TV on in the background is distracting for small children and lessens their ability to focus on one project or game for an extended period of time. Young children playing with toys while the TV is on will look up at the screen every 20 seconds. Which impairs their concentration abilities later on.

Another sad statistic... 1/3 of children have a TV in their room by the time they're 3 years old. This severely cuts down on family time. Turn TV time into family time! At least putting the only TV (they can watch) in the living room forces them out to spend time with you - all through high school even! But we're not talking about teenagers... television has been associated with obesity and sleep problems and fast-paced cartoons have even been shown to impair concentration. Please don't subject your 3 year old, 5 year old, or 7 year old to that!

Now that I've rambled a bit on the negatives of media and television... (which was not the intent of this post - I plan to write another post on media and television itself later on)... let me get back to the topic at hand. Talking to your baby!

Talking to Your Baby

"Within a year and a half, most kids can pronounce 50 words and understand about 100 more. That figure explodes to 1,000 words by a child's third birthday and to 6,000 just before the sixth birthday. [...] At birth, your baby can distinguish between the sounds of every language that has ever been invented. [...] We are born with the capacity to speak any language." Brain Rules for Baby

The more that parents talk to their children, even as soon as they are born, the better their linguistic abilities will be. "The variety of words spoken is nearly as important as the number of words spoken. [...] The gold standard is 2,100 words per hour." (Though that number may sound like a lot, it really is fairly moderate. The typical person sees or hears roughly 100,000 words in a day outside of work).

Even when your infant is preverbal, you can reinforce their language skills by rewarding their vocalizations with attention, laughter, facial expressions and even imitate their attempts at language. Though they can't respond yet, they are listening and absorbing everything! Reading to a 3-month-old is good, especially if you hold them close and allow them to interact with you. "Children whose parents talked positively, richly, and regularly to them knew twice as many words as those whose parents talked to them the least."

"Kids who were talked to regularly by their parents [...] had IQ scores 1 1/2 times higher than those kids whose parents talked to them the least."


The way that you talk to your baby is also important. First, you should use real words and not "goo-goo, ga-ga" at them. Baby-talk, as that is called, is not beneficial. What is beneficial is what is called "Parentese." Parentese manner of speaking that is characterized by a higher-pitch and a sing-song voice with elongated vowels. A lot of parents and adults may not realize that they do it, but this kind of speech actually helps a baby learn. Firstly, because a speaker is much easier to understand when they slow down their speech. (You hear that, college professors??) Secondly, parentese makes each vowel sound more distinct, making them easier to distinguish and discriminate between. Thirdly, the high pitch may help infants imitate your speech. Their vocal tract is 1/4 the size of an adult's and the first few sounds they can produce are at higher pitches.

So... when do I need to start talking to my baby?

As soon as possible! Most say start right after birth. But there are studies that show that talking to your baby - reading to them and singing to them too - during pregnancy is also beneficial! In one study, women in the final 6 weeks of pregnancy were asked to read The Cat in the Hat out loud twice a day. (Total infant exposure was about 5 hours!). After birth, the babies were given pacifiers that were hooked to a machine that measured the strength and frequency of their sucking. (The strength and frequency of sucking can be used to assess whether an infant recognizes something). The babies were then played a recording of their mothers reading The Cat in the Hat, a different story, or no story at all. The results were astonishing! Babies who were read the Dr. Seuss story in the womb appeared to recognize and even prefer the tape of their mother reading that same story after birth. They recognized their previous in-womb experience!

You may have heard that your baby will recognize your voice after birth - and this is true. Newborns will most likely prefer the sound of your voice to others. Babies will even respond to TV shows mom watched while pregnant! Newborns have a powerful memory for sounds they encountered in utero. Re-exposing them to these same comforting, familiar sounds (your voice, music, etc) after birth is a great way to ease their transition from in-womb to out-in-this-crazy-world! (Side note: playing music is good during pregnancy, and playing the same songs after birth can help soothe your baby, but playing Mozart to your womb will not improve your baby's future math scores).

This shows that auditory perception begins long before birth. At 6 months gestation, if you play a sound to a fetus, you can listen to their brain firing electrical responses! Around 8 months, your pre-term infant can not only hear and respond but can even discriminate between various speech sounds.


So in conclusion... talk to your baby. A lot! My baby boy has yet to make his arrival, but I recorded myself reading a variety of children's books - Dr. Seuss among others - and play the recordings to him practically daily. Though my husband is deployed and can't talk to my womb in person, he recorded himself reading a book before he left and I play that to my belly often as well. :)

I know life is hectic sometimes and that it is easy to use TV or media as a way to get a moment to yourself or get something done. I try not to judge others' parenting choices. But I plan to not let my boy (and future kids) watch any TV before he is 2 - and after that, as little as possible. My thinking is... our parents managed to raise us with very little media and TV exposure - since it wasn't as readily available - and their parents did the same with them... all the way back to the beginning of time parents have raised kids without using media as a crutch. I know sometimes I will cave like many others before me, but I plan to do my very best! Which of course, is all that any of us can hope to do! :)

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