You may have heard about a study published this month that focused on parents’ vocal interactions with their infants. In the study, investigators used a recording device on the infants and analyzed the amount of words spoke by both parents at three separate times: in the hospital after birth, at about 4 weeks of age, and at 7 months of age.
Researchers found three main results:
- Mothers provided about three times as much verbal interaction as fathers at all study periods, and they responded more to infant verbal cues than fathers.
- Infants responded preferentially to voices of mothers rather than fathers.
- Mothers were more likely to vocalize with girl infants than boy infants.
Some of you are probably thinking: “Yeah, that’s obvious. So what?” While mothers the world over seem to talk to their infants more frequently and easily than fathers, the study is a reminder that early talking to infants from both parents, and lots of it, is helpful for their language development.
In my practice, I encourage parents to talk to their babies right from birth. Babies can hear well, and their brains are primed to acquire language. They may not talk for many months, but they are learning words and the rules of communication from the moment they are born. Many other studies have shown that talking to babies will improve their verbal and cognitive skills in childhood.
For most moms in my practice, this comes naturally. They routinely talk to their babies, smile at them, engage with them and respond to their cues.
Dads, however, seem to have a harder time with baby talk. When dads are unsure about what to say to their newborns, I advise them to narrate their day. Just pretend you are describing everything you are doing. “Alright Claire, now Daddy is going to change your diaper. And who knew pureed carrots could smell this bad, right?”
For dads and moms, simply talking to your baby about anything is helpful for them to learn language. And the speech doesn’t have to be nonsense words, like “goo-goo” or “ga-ga”, which dads seem especially uncomfortable with. I encourage using adult language with babies, or talking in any way that feels comfortable. Many parents naturally use “parentese,” that language that is universal when speaking to babies: longer vowels, a higher pitch to the voice, an almost sing-song quality to speech.
But it doesn’t matter how you speak to your babies, just that you do speak to them. And when they vocalize, be sure to respond. This teaches them the back-and-forth quality of conversation, and encourages them to vocalize even more.
So if you have a baby at home, talk to her about anything: your day at work, how smart and adorable she is, about that new book you’ve been reading, about the latest Bears game, about anything at all. And relish this time: no matter what you say, she can’t say “No,” can’t roll her her eyes at you, and can’t talk back. Yet.
Dr. Ruben J. Rucoba is a general pediatrician in Wheaton, Illinois. A member of the medical staff at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Central DuPage Hospital, he is especially interested in the care of special needs children. Dr. Rucoba is also a medical writer and the father of four children.