Pretending to Understand What Babies Say Can Make Them Smarter

New research suggests it’s how parents talk to their infants, not just how often, that makes a difference for language development.
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A few weeks ago, I was eating lunch with my family at a pancake house when a small blond head popped over the top of the booth next to ours.

Somewhere in the ballpark of a year old, the boy said something unintelligible—maybe baby babbling, maybe real words muffled by pancake—and gave a high-pitched giggle. He waved a tiny-syrup smeared arm in my direction.

“He’s such a flirt,” his mother said apologetically.

“He is,” cooed my own mother, who can befriend anything that will stand still long enough. “Hiiiiii.” She kicked me under the table.

“Oh—hi,” I said. I waved back. But men are fickle creatures, and our neighbor only frowned, turned around and sat back down to his food.

The point of the story is not to say that a toddler was unimpressed by my flirtation skills, though I can’t say I haven’t considered the worrisome implications of this fact. No, the point of the story is that talking to small children is hard. In my younger years, I went through phases of shying away from adults who tried to engage me in conversation. Now, the feeling has inverted: As an adult, I am anxious and tongue-tied when speaking to little kids.

That could be bad news for my future offspring. Research has repeatedly touted the benefits of exposing children to language from an early age, but a new study published in the journal Infancy got more specific, finding that verbally engaging with babies—listening to their gurgles and coos and then responding, conversation-style—may speed up their language development more than simply talking at them or around them.

Researchers from the University of Iowa and Indiana University observed a small group of mothers and their infants in individual unstructured play sessions over the course of six months, beginning when the children were eight months old, and coded the mothers’ responses to their babies’ babbling into two categories. “Redirective” responses involved turning the babies’ attention elsewhere, like showing them a toy or pointing out something in the room, while “sensitive” responses were ones where the mothers verbally replied to or imitated their sounds—though, as the study notes:

Imitations rarely took the form of imitating the sound that the infant made, but more often involved the mother modeling the word that the sound approximated and expanding on it (e.g., if the infant uttered “da-da-da,” the mother would say “Da-da is working. I am ma-ma").

A month after their last session, the mothers filled out a survey assessing the progress their children had made towards speech. The infants whose mothers had shown “sensitive” responses, the researchers found, showed increased rates of consonant-vowel vocalizations—meaning that their babbling more closely resembled something like real syllables, paving the way for real words. The same babies were also more likely to direct their noises at their mothers, indicating that they were “speaking” to them rather than simply babbling for babbling’s sake.

“The infants were using vocalizations in a communicative way, in a sense, because they learned they are communicative,” study author Julie Gros-Louis, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa, said in a statement. In other words, by acting like they understood what their babies were saying and responding accordingly, the mothers were helping to introduce the concept that voices, more than just instruments for making fun noises, could also be tools for social interaction.

The takeaway of all this is that how parents speak to their infants may be as important as the frequency with which they do it. And for the child-phobic among us, a glass-half-full reading is that it’s fine—maybe even beneficial—to simply talk to babies like they’re miniature adults. Soon enough, they will be, anyway, leaving the nest to go break hearts in pancake houses everywhere.

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Cari Romm writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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