Baby Talk Isn’t Babble

Cathy Ostrowski knows the importance of talking with an infant. Before both of her daughters were even born, the Cary mother spent time chatting with them in her womb. Her husband, Paul, also would talk to the unborn girls, making sure they would recognize his voice.

Today, Cathy spends time reading books to the girls each day. Madeline, at 2 1/2, already loves her books, and Marina, at 8 weeks, is now a regular partner in the reading sessions. Reading to and talking with the girls are critical to the development of their language skills, Cathy believes.

“My friends had a book shower for me before Marina was born,” says Cathy, who works as a registered nutritionist. “They know how much I believe reading and talking helps the girls with their vocabulary and growth. I try to read a book to Marina now every time she nurses.”

Cathy is just one of many new mothers who knows the value of talking with an infant. Researchers have recently found that the interaction between parents and children significantly influences the development of effective communication skills throughout a child’s life. Parents should encourage childhood chatter, according to local experts in the field.

To make their mark, says Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, “parents must remember that silence is not golden.” Babies are pre-programmed to acquire language, but “baby talk” — the strange, sing-song lingo adults murmur around infants — seems to help foster language learning.

Infants enter the world “hard-wired” for language, she says. A nationally recognized expert in language development, Hirsh-Pasek is the co-author of two recent books on the topic of speech development, How Babies Talk (Plume, 2000) and Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (Rodale Press, 2003).

“Babies are not simply passive, receptive beings who sit there being cute,” she explains. “Sure, they’re adorable, but they also have very active minds, and they take in everything we give them.”

In fact, researchers know that a 7-month-old still in the womb can hear its parents because, like a newborn, its heart rate declines and then returns to normal in response to interesting sounds.

Hirsh-Pasek stresses the importance of parents talking with their babies, not just to them. If given the opportunity, children at a very young age quickly learn to respond to this chatter. In addition to language development, this baby talk also helps teach children the importance of taking turns in a conversation.

“Parents need to learn to talk with their children, pausing to give the child time to respond,” says Dr. Elizabeth Hennon, a developmental psychologist at The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in Chapel Hill. “This chatting helps set the foundation skills for later speech development.”

The quality of time spent talking with newborns and children is more important than the actual quantity, Hennon says. Parents who spend an hour or more actually conversing with their children are making more of an impact then those who just talk around their child during the day, experts agree.

Young children also seem to respond favorably to enthusiasm in their parents’ voices, according to Dr. Don Rosenblitt, the clinical director of The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary.

“In the development of language and speech, young children can sense the excitement in their parents’ voices and respond to it,” he explains. “They are eager to learn and want to participate in the conversation.”

Between 4 and 8 months of age, Hirsh-Pasek says, coos and gurgles turn into the sing-song noises commonly called babbling. A 6-month-old might “sing” herself to sleep and parents also may be thrilled to hear babies begin saying “dada” and “mama”.

From 9 to 12 months, the experts report, babies begin pointing and grunting, habits that can prove frustrating for parents, who must guess what the child wants. Soon though, babies between 12 and 18 months begin using their first words as they realize that words symbolize specific concepts and objects.

Helen Kaye, owner and speech language pathologist at Cary Speech Services, encourages parents to develop their own special “sign language” with their young children. This can help eliminate some of the frustration on both sides before the child learns to verbally communicate, she says.

“Communication is very difficult for families with babies of 9 to 30 months who have little speech,” Kaye says. “Baby signs are becoming popular since the book by the same name was published.”

Parents can select about five words that would make everyone’s lives easier if the baby could communicate them. They might include actions like eat and drink and nouns like dog and cat. Kaye recommends using the signs and the corresponding words frequently over several weeks. Some babies learn their first sign in just a few weeks, while other babies take a month or two. Signs may include a blowing gesture for a fish, a finger to the mouth to indicate a bottle or two fingers in a v shape to mean a bunny.

“It is important to remember that the signs that you will be teaching will only be used and understood by family members,” Kaye cautioned. “Baby signs serve their purpose during the early toddler years when your baby’s speech mechanism has not caught up with his mind.”

A “vocabulary spurt” usually happens when toddlers reach 18 to 24 months and begin learning up to nine new words each week, according to Hirsh-Pasek. Research suggests that this spurt occurs after children have accumulated anywhere from 30 to 100 words. At that point, they can form simple sentences. Then, as children enter the 24-to 36-month stage, they begin manipulating grammatical rules, initiating conversations on the telephone, in the kitchen, with parents — or with anyone else who will listen.

By age 3, children are language specialists, ready to tackle virtually any social situation, Hirsh-Pasek says. She also encourages parents to avoid the cultural pressures to push even small children to perform and excel.

“The best advice I can give parents is just to relax and enjoy their children,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “Parents don’t need to be uptight all the time. Magical times with children just come in doing the ordinary.”