From the moment we see the positive pregnancy test we start to think about all we can do to make sure our babies reach their potential.
From in-utero music to baby and me classes, mothers will invest whatever it takes to help their little ones develop.
Yet research shows doing one simple thing can help your baby be smarter. It doesn’t require any financial investment and all parents are capable of doing it.
So, what do you need to do to help your baby be smarter?
Pretend to understand what they’re “saying.” Simply have a conversation with your baby and pretend to understand all their babbles.
Why Is Pretending To Understand Babies Important?
“baaaah….ahhhh….ooooh,” doesn’t exactly make for interesting conversation. It’s incredibly adorable and charming each time your baby makes a new sound, but chatting back may feel silly.
If you’re a stay at home parent, it can even make you feel a little crazy after ten hours alone with a little one. Am I really trying to hold a conversation with a 4 month old?
As silly as it can feel, talking back to your babbling baby is vital for their development. Cooing and silly sounds are the beginning of verbal communication. When your baby makes sounds she’s developing her expressive communication. When you acknowledge her sounds and speak back to her, she’s learning receptive communication.
By responding to your baby’s sounds, you’re encouraging her to further practice and develop her communication skills. You’re exposing her to more language and social skills with every conversation. And as the research above showed, responding to your baby as if you understand her words can make them smarter.
Researchers Julie Gros-Louis from the Department of Psychology at the University of Iowa, and Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University looked at a group of mother-baby pairs to see how mothers interacted and what impact different interactions can have.
Does How You Talk To Your Baby Matter?
Any social interaction, touch, bonding, etc. is beneficial for baby. However, researchers found there was a correlation between mothers who responded sensitively to their baby’s vocalisations and infants with developmentally advanced vocalisations.
In short, it does seem to matter how we talk to our babies. Allowing babies to participate in the back and forth of a “conversation” can help them to become more engaged, learn about social cues, develop more understanding of the sounds in our language, and provide an excellent reward (interaction and attention) for vocalising.
When Do Babies Begin Talking?
One way to remind yourself of the importance of listening to your baby’s babbles and coos is to think of them as her way of talking to you. So often we hear crying is a baby’s form of communication, but in many ways, crying can be a late cue and form of communication.
The more we respond to their coos, babbles, and non-verbal cues (e.g. eye rubbing, yawning) the more we teach babies about communication beyond just crying. The more we respond with words, facial gestures, etc. the more they learn about back and forth communication (receptive and expressive language).
So, when do babies start talking? Typically:
- 6 weeks and until 3 months you can expect to hear vowel sounds and cooing such as “ahh” “iii” and gurgling like sounds
- 4-5 months you hear combination sounds like “goo” “gah” and “a-ga”
- 6 months you hear strings of consonants like “da-da-da” and while it begins to sound like words, they’re typically said without understanding the meaning of the words
- 8 months you’ll continue to hear those consonants but they’re often said sounding even more like words such as “da-da.” Some babies might begin to understand the meaning, but for most this is still a babble without understanding of the meaning
- 8-18 months you’ll start to hear words or word sounds that are said with meaning. You’re likely to hear “bah” for ball or even hear a clear “ball.”
As you can see, there’s a wide range of when you might hear their first “real” word. However, most babies are practicing their language skills very soon after birth. Touch may be our babies first language and way of communication, but it shouldn’t be their only early “language.”
After a while, the coos become commonplace and may lose the excitement from when you first heard them. But it’s still important to show just as much interest in them to help your baby continue to develop their language skills.
How Can I Talk To My Baby?
Spending the day with a little one can be full of joy, frustration, and at the same time feel incredibly busy. Yet, it can also feel oddly boring at times.
When you’re constantly with a little one, you can feel like you have little intellectual stimulation. After all, you can only sing The Itsy Bitsy Spider so many times before you feel crazy.
Nevertheless, the more you talk to your baby, the better they’ll be able to develop their communication skills. Some ways you can increase how much you communicate with your baby include:
- Reading books – they don’t even always need to be children’s books. You can read something you find interesting aloud and they’ll still enjoy the interaction. There’s definitely benefit to the sing-song and rhymes in storybooks, but when you tire of that, it’s okay to read your magazine aloud to them.
- Sing songs – they don’t have to be children's songs either! Singing your favourite artist's hits can alleviate the boredom of repeating The Wheels On The Bus.
- Describe what you’re doing – “I’m walking to the kitchen to grab a glass of water.” “We’re going to grab some tomatoes from that produce box.” It can feel weird to narrate your life but it provides extra opportunity to expose your little one to language.
- Have a conversation with them or include them in the conversation you’re having with others.
- Describe things around you with excitement – “Wow look at that beautiful purple flower!”
How Do You Have A Conversation With A Baby?
It can feel weird to talk to someone who can’t clearly communicate back. However, having conversations with your baby that aren’t just one sided (e.g. describing your surroundings or actions to them) is an important part of developing their communication skills.
So, what might a conversation with a baby sound like? It can go however you’d like but it may sound like:
“A-goo,” along with some gurgling and smiles by baby.
“Hi Sammy! You sound so happy right now. What do you want to tell me?”
“A-goo,” more gurgling and kicking while grabbing at his toy.
“A-goo? Oh, you like that ba-ba-ball don’t you? That’s a fun ball!”
“Aahh,” followed by a yawn and some eye rubbing.
“Aww, Sammy are you getting tired? I think it’s time for a nap. Let’s get your blanket. Okay, mama's going to change your diaper and swaddle you. Are you ready to nurse? Let’s nurse and rest.”
During the time you’re having a conversation with your baby, you should also:
- Make eye contact
- Pause after you say something to give the opportunity for them to babble. Pause as if you were talking with an older child or adult, give them a chance to “answer” you
- Articulate words clearly to help them hear the different sounds you use in your language
- Imitate some of the sounds your baby is making while also using real words.
What If I’m Not Good At Communicating With My Baby?
Ah motherhood, the time we want all the information but we also stress about everything. It’s important to be aware of how and why we should communicate with our babies. This information serves as a good reminder of how important our role can be in helping them develop language skills.
However, each of us have different areas of strength. Some of us enjoy talking constantly to anyone who will listen, even a baby. Some of us don’t enjoy talking all that much and find it takes a good bit of energy to constantly chat.
If chatting doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t start to stress. Start with reading to your baby. It can be easier to read than try to start a random conversation with someone who can’t really talk back. Once you’re comfortable reading, you can start adding in narrating your day.
In time, the more you get used to talking around your little one, the easier it can be to chat with them. It can be challenging when all you get out of a conversation is an “a-goo” but in time each conversation will have more back and forth.
You may also find your baby won’t resort to going straight to crying to communicate. When they learn people respond to their babbling, many babies will begin with some quiet noises and then escalate to a more urgent sounding babble before jumping straight to crying.
If you’re worried about how well you communicate with your baby, chances are you’re already communicating pretty well with them. The fact that you understand the importance of talking with your baby is half the battle.
Will Talking With My Baby Really Make Him Smarter?
Every child is unique and it can be important not to make direct comparisons between your baby and your friend’s baby.
What the small research study found was a statistically relevant correlation between mothers answering their babies babbles with interactive communication, and babies scoring higher in language skills at 15 months.
Certainly, there are many factors that come into play in determining one’s intelligence. This study and studies like it are meant to help professionals, educators and parents make informed parenting choices. Chatting with your baby regularly may not mean a direct path to Harvard, nor does less communication mean your child will struggle.
However, there’s a clear correlation that children benefit from early verbal interaction. The first year of life has a big impact on a child’s overall lifetime. Significant brain growth and development occurs in the first year, as well as the first 3-5 years.
Their activities and interactions in the early years with parents can impact future learning, relationships, social skills and overall health and wellness.
What Can Hinder A Baby’s Language Skills?
Along with learning what is helpful for building language skills, it can be important to learn which things can have a negative impact.
It’s important to note all things come down to benefit versus risk and relative risk. An increased risk isn’t a guarantee. It may not always be a likely risk, but it’s helpful to be aware of them to make informed decisions.
Every child’s language skills develop at a unique pace. However, a child’s environment has a big impact on how their skills develop.