Parents of toddlers know that kids slurp up whatever language they hear, without any regard for potential embarrassment. That would explain why Baby V yelled “Boom, boom, boom!” at our lovely but heavy-walking upstairs neighbor when we saw her outside yesterday.
Although they can’t express as many ideas as toddlers do, newborns do the same thing. And a new study that looks at who is doing the talking reveals some interesting tidbits about young babies’ verbal environment.
In homes with both a mother and a father, moms did most of the talking to the infants, pediatrician Betty Vohr of Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I., and colleagues report November 3 in Pediatrics. Recorders strapped into a little vest captured all speech for at least a 10-hour stretch when babies were just born, at around 1 month of age, and again around 7 months. (About half of the 33 babies were born a little early, so the researchers used the date of conception to “correct” their age.)
Overall, the team found that mothers talked to their babies about three times as much as fathers did, even though the recordings were done when both parents were around. Perhaps that’s not a surprise. If it wasn’t for pesky details like eating and using the bathroom, I could have sat around looking at my newborn and whispering ridiculous little sweet things to her all day and night.
Another difference between mothers and fathers turned up when the scientists analyzed “conversations” in which the baby would say something and the parent would respond in 5 seconds or less. Of course, these aren’t real conversations, says Vohr. “The infant goes ‘ah’ and the mother or father says, “Oh, you said ‘ah,’” she says. Nonetheless, these conversational turns are important exercises that help babies learn the basic ebbs and flows of communication.
Mothers responded to these infant entreaties between 88 to 94 percent of the time; fathers only responded between 27 to 30 percent of the time, the recordings showed. “That is quite a difference,” Vohr says.
The research hinted at another result too: At the two earliest time points, mothers responded slightly more to their daughters’ vocalizations than to those from their sons. It’s possible that fathers do the same for sons, but the data in this study aren’t strong enough to make the case conclusively.
Studies with more babies are needed to see if mothers actually respond more to daughters and fathers to sons. And if they do, it’s not clear what could explain that selective chattiness, Vohr says. Girls’ brains mature slightly faster than boys’, so maybe mothers are responding more to their daughters because the babies are more alert, she says.
It’s quite likely that fathers provide language input that’s different from what mom serves up, but still helpful. Earlier research suggests that fathers’ vocabulary — but not mothers’ — when talking to a six-month-old baby is linked to later language development at 15 and 36 months of age.
All of these studies leave a lot of unanswered questions, but one thing is clear, says Vohr. Talking to babies, even very young babies, is good for them. Babies’ brains start rehearsing how to say words long before they can talk, so parents should assume that from birth, or even before it, those young minds are ready to chat. “It’s never too young to start these very exciting conversations,” Vohr says.
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