A Pep Talk on Early Talk (and Why It’s So Important for Your Baby)

A Pep Talk on Early Talk (and Why It’s So Important for Your Baby)

By Marianne Lamarche

Did you know there is something completely free - and quite simple - that you can do today with your baby or toddler to help them have a higher IQ, better vocabulary, and greater reading comprehension when they’re a teenager? Researchers in language development have found amazing connections between early talk and later academic ability, socioemotional development, career opportunities, and more. Today, I want to share those with you!

Newborn brains are incredibly powerful. From their first day of life, babies are able to recognize the differences between their mother’s language and all other foreign languages. We come into the world with everything we need in our brain to pick up one (or more) languages almost effortlessly in our first few years of life. But this acquisition wouldn’t be possible without our parents and caregivers!

The conversational turns that adults have with infants and toddlers, where someone “serves” with words, sounds, or gestures and the other “returns” the interaction, are vital for the healthy development of our brains. From birth to age three, 85% of your baby’s lifetime brain growth will happen, with about one million neural connections forming every second. When you have a serve-and-return interaction with your baby, the part of their brain responsible for language lights up, and they make connections about their world that will one day help them be a great speaker, listener, reader, and writer!

The time between 18 and 24 months may be an especially important period for adult-child engagement, but serve-and-return is vital at all ages. These 14 talking tips provide ideas for how and when to engage in conversational turns with your child. For example, talk about what you’re doing and thinking, repeat and add to what they say or do, wait for their response to you, and get face-to-face with them. As always, don’t be afraid to get a little silly, too!

In an ideal world, each child would have an average of 40 conversational turns per hour when they’re awake. This may seem daunting at first. As a simple strategy to increase turns, try doubling up on serve-and-return interactions. If you have one, go for another! Every increase of just two turns per hour shows benefits for children’s brains, so every effort made by you and other adults in your child’s life is important.

Unfortunately, television and online/social media programs don’t count as conversational turns—sorry, Ms. Rachel!—since your child won’t have live, interactive feedback. There’s nothing wrong with playing these for your child from time to time, but make sure they’re not replacing opportunities for conversational turns with real adults!

Many parents also wonder about the infamous ‘baby talk.’ Researchers have named infant-directed speech “parentese,” and it comes naturally to people in every culture and language of the world who talk to young children. Parentese usually involves varying pitch, emphasizing vowel and consonant sounds, repetition, and exaggerated facial expressions and gestures, and it actually HELPS babies to learn language! Babies are more interested in melodic, animated speech, so they’re drawn to this kind of speech. ‘Baby talk’ only becomes an issue when adults use made-up words to communicate with babies. As long as you’re using real words and grammar, your baby will benefit from this slightly adjusted speech.

These efforts to increase the quality and quantity of early talk with infants and toddlers can have so many positive impacts on our families and communities. The next time you’re with a young child you care about, strive for meaningful conversational turns where you tune in to what they’re interested in. Not only will you help them build powerful connections in their brain, but you will also grow your bond together, all while helping children to have equal early language opportunities and access.