Even infants can have conversations with mom or dad. Their turn just tends to involve a smile or some gibberish instead of words. That is a key lesson from programs that are coaching parents to talk more with their babies — and recording their attempts.
At issue is how to bridge the “word gap,” the finding that affluent children generally hear far more words before they start school than low-income kids.
New research suggests that intervening early can at least boost the words at-risk babies hear and maybe influence some school-readiness factors.
One program in Providence, Rhode Island, straps “word pedometers” onto babies to record how many words per day they hear from family or caregivers — not TV. Another in New York records video of parents practicing conversation strategies with babies too young to even say “Da-da.”
“Parents say: ‘Wow, look what I did there. I made a sound and my child smiled at me,” New York University’s Alan Mendelsohn said. “The power in that is really something.”
The research was presented on Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
Scientists have long known the power of simply of talking to babies — the sooner the better.
A 1995 study found that poor children hear a fraction of the words their peers in wealthier homes do, adding up to about 30 million fewer words by age three. The reasons are myriad. If mom’s exhausted from two jobs, she is less likely to read that extra bedtime story or have time to explore This Little Piggie when putting on a child’s socks.
Those children have smaller vocabularies and lag academically, and can find it hard to catch up. That is in part because early experiences shape how the brain develops in those critical first years of life.
Programs are popping up across the US to spread the “let’s talk” message.
There is little data on which interventions really work.
However, researchers outlined some promising early findings on Friday and said the problem is about more than word quantity.
“Yes, you can talk more, but what is the quality of your language?” said Caitlin Molina, executive director of the Providence Talks program. “It’s not just the adult word count, but the conversational turns, the back and forth, that engage the child.”
Providence Talks has enrolled more than 1,300 babies and toddlers since 2014 in programs that train parents to build in more conversation during the day. First, coaches provide strategies. Do not just read the book, but ask about the pictures. Turn off the radio in the car to talk about where you are going. Describe the colors when dressing a baby, and pause to give them a chance to babble back.
Then, one day every two weeks, the children wear a small recorder that counts how many words they hear and the number of those “conversational turns.”
It can count the returning baby babble, but not the TV or radio. Parents are given the scores, to track their own progress.
Early results show two-thirds of participating families improve. Children who started the program hearing an average of 8,000 words per day were averaging 12,000 per day when the coaching ended, Molina said.
Brown University has begun an independent study to track whether the improvement was enough to make a difference once those children begin kindergarten.
In New York, Mendelsohn is studying a program that coaches parents at the pediatrician’s office, while they are waiting for routine well-baby visits.
By age three, youngsters in the coaching program did better at imitation play and attention and displayed less hyperactivity, Meldelsohn said.
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