Every word you say builds your child’s brain: The importance of talking to your baby during the first years of life

Talking to your baby can have lifelong benefits

All parents know the intense joy of seeing their infant examining their face while they coo and chatter to their baby. As babies grow, parents wait for their first words and celebrate the ability to talk. Additionally, most parents are very interested in watching how their small children learn to communicate with the world.

But did you know that parents and people who care for babies and small infants have a big impact on how the child’s brain develops and have a direct influence on the ability of the child to communicate effectively?

New research is revealing the importance of fostering healthy brain development during the first three years of life by talking in a meaningful way with babies and small children. The quality and quantity of adult-child interactions during the first three years of life are critical factors in a child’s school readiness and ultimate school achievement because it influences brain development.

Parents can use their words and interactions with their babies and small children to stimulate the development of their child’s brains. How? Communicating, both verbally and non-verbally, with infants and small children continuously throughout the day. The goal is to stimulate babies and small children with sufficient interactions with adults. The experience of communicating with adults using a diverse and deep vocabulary helps small children communicate better and receive positive feedback that keeps them striving to communicate more.

Many parents set their babies or small children in front of screens (e.g. televisions, phones, tablets) for many hours each day to watch children’s programs. This practice is problematic for two reasons. The first is that all major pediatric organizations recommend that children 0-2 years not placed in front of screens because they need a different type of stimulation to develop their brains and bodies. The second is that most of these programs do not meet appropriate educational standards for early childhood education. The programs are developed to appeal to infants and small children but lack oversight by early childhood education experts to ensure appropriate visual images, language levels, and themes for young viewers. Compounding this problem is that many programs for children are available via Internet sources, such as YouTube or Vimeo, and are created or promoted for advertising purposes that further reduce the quality of the programing. This is the precise reason that parents need to focus on bringing babies and small infants into the daily practices of the family so they receive the right type and sufficient amount of stimulation.

Some recommendations to stimulate your baby’s brain development

Here are a few ways that you can begin communicating with your baby and small children to promote healthy brain development and school readiness:

  • Remove screen time (e.g. television, phones, tablets) for children 0-2 years. Limit screen time to 1 hour or less for children 3-5 years.
  • Be sure programs being viewed are both age appropriate and developmentally correct.
  • Bring your baby or small child along with you during the day
    • Chat with your children in the car while driving, describe where you are going or who you will be seeing.
    • Speak to your baby while folding laundry or preparing meals, explain to them what you are doing.
    • Sit your baby or small child at the table during meal times with the family to socialize. Be sure to include them in the conversation.
    • Place your baby or small child in the shopping cart and describe to them what you are buying and why.
  • Sit down and play with your child for short periods throughout the day.
  • Allow your child to sit or play next to you and occasionally talk to them about what they are doing (i.e. “Are you holding your stuffed monkey?” “Are you busy playing with your blocks? What are you building?”).

Understandably, it can be hard to talk frequently with babies and small children who cannot yet talk back. However, there is a lot of important internal work going on inside their brains when parents take time to intentionally interact with babies and small children that will stimulate their brain development and help them be ready for school. The first few interactions may feel uncomfortable or difficult to start, but with a little practice most parents find their own rhythm for maintaining single-sided conversations and reacting to their baby’s verbal and non-verbal responses.

Chatting with babies and small children while folding laundry, making dinner, grocery shopping, running errands, and having meals is important to their socialization and brain development. Babies and small children are like sponges, they are constantly picking up on the images, sounds, and interactions around them. The richer the environment, the more their brains develop and become sensitive to picking up new information. What luck that something so powerful and beneficial is also free.

Source: Thirty Million Words Initiative (2018). The University of Chicago Medicine, Chicago, IL.

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