Simple Ideas with Profound Impact
How to Develop Your Baby’s Understanding!
Children are born with a natural instinct to learn. They are constantly trying to figure out how something works: feeling it, picking stuff up, tasting everything! They love to learn. There is nothing better than looking at the world through a child’s eyes. It is a wonderful thing to experience. The more you teach a child, the more curious they become about the world around them, and the more they want to learn.
As newborns grow, the functions of vision, hearing and understanding, and tactile ability play an increasingly important role in how they learn. It’s important to take advantage of the visual, auditory and tactile pathways to begin developing your baby’s understanding of his environment.
Today, we’ll focus on the auditory/understanding function. Before we expect output we must give input. In other words, before you can expect your child to speak we must teach her to understand spoken language. The more direct language your baby hears, the earlier she will understand and the earlier she will follow instructions. As a result, children who are spoken to a lot throughout the day, and from birth, have a broader and more sophisticated understanding.
Two studies highlight just how important this simple practice is for a child’s brain.
- The first is a 1995 University of Kansas research study that focused on vocabulary and the number of words heard by children. The researchers discovered that poor children heard about 600 words/hour, middle class children heard about 1200 words/hour, and children from professional families heard about 2100 words/hour. By age 3 the poor children heard about 3 million less words than the children from professional families. This matters because in this study IQ and success in school correlated closely with the number of words heard early in life. Talking to children from the time they are born has a tremendous impact on brain development and future cognitive/intellectual function.
- The second study, just published in February 2018, builds on the U of K study and was done at MIT. In this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to evaluate the importance of how we talk to children, not just how much we talk to them. This study provided clear proof that the critical factor in developing understanding is to actually engage children as you are speaking with them. The children who had the highest number of conversation experiences where there was give and take between parent and child were the ones who had the most brain activity in the language centers of the brain and the most brain growth. The study also found that these results correlated strongly on standardized tests of language skills, including vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning.
So, hearing words directly from a person interacting with the child face-to-face is what has the most impact. Aside from other concerns, this means that putting a child in front of an iPad, smart phone, or TV is not the same thing as a live person talking to the child.
This study helps illustrate the first law of brain development, “Function determines Structure”, which we explained in our previous blog post. When we speak to children using a rich, varied, and sophisticated vocabulary, and engage them in the dance of interactive communication, we literally grow the brain by creating new auditory pathways and reinforcing the pathways that already exist. The result is better understanding and eventually better cognitive skills in all areas of communication. Such a simple action with such powerful results!
So, how do we develop understanding?
It is actually very easy, especially for those of us who like to talk and to be around children. But it can be a bit of a challenge for those of us who are more on the quiet side and are not so sure what to say to a child. First, let’s not ignore the fact that we are all too often connected to our own devices and they take time away from us truly being with our children. So, you need to discipline yourself regarding time spent on your smartphone or other device when you are with your baby or toddler. Once you get this out of the way, you just have to be conscious of your surroundings and use this opportunity to talk.
One of the simplest ways to teach babies is to talk to them about everything that is around them. Here are just a few examples of what to say:
- When your baby wakes up – “Good morning beautiful! Did you sleep well? Let’s get you changed…”
- When you are nursing her – “I love you so much! Your skin is so soft. Your toes are so cute (as you stroke her toes)…”
- When you are changing his diaper – “Phew, you stink! Let’s get you cleaned! While changing him take advantage to touch his nose and tell him “nose”, touch his mouth and tell him “mouth”, touch his ears and say “ears” if touching both or “ear” if touching one ear and so on…
- When you are wearing her – Point out things that are close to her and name them. Stop by a flower and say “flower”, “This flower is so beautiful!”, “It is a yellow flower”…
- When you are taking a walk with baby in a stroller talk to your baby – “Let’s go for a walk”, “Look at that dog!”, “He’s a big dog”, “Wow, there are so many cars on the street!”, “Is the sun bothering you?”, “Let me put the cover up to get the sun out of your eyes…”
- When you are driving somewhere – “Let me put you in the car”, “Here is a “toy” for you to look at!”, “Isn’t it pretty?!”, We are going to visit daddy at work”, “I am taking you to daycare and after that I am going to work” and so on.
- Sing! When you are cooking, cleaning, driving or just cuddling with your child. Children love music and as they grow they love to dance! Sing children’s songs and other songs you and your child enjoy listening to.
Opportunities for talking are everywhere. You can make the most of your engagement with your child by paying attention to the following points:
Provide New Information
In order to change the brain we must regularly provide new information. If we keep teaching the same thing over and over again, past the point where the child has learned the information, eventually the brain just tunes out. But, when we provide new information the brain is at attention and it grows and develops!
Provide Correct Information
You also want to make sure that the information you provide is correct information. Another basic law is that when we put garbage in, we get garbage out. Make sure that you are giving correct information. “Baby talk” teaches language that will need to be corrected later. Best to teach it correctly right from the beginning.
Place yourself in the best position
When speaking to your baby make sure your face is facing his and that you are close to him. This is especially important for babies in their first 3 months of life when their vision is immature. As your baby grows you can begin to distance yourself but make sure your baby is aware that you are talking to her. If she is not, you are too far away.
When speaking to a toddler and young child it is best if you get down to the child’s level whenever possible. By this we mean, bend down or get down on one knee so that you are face to face with them. This puts you both on more even ground as opposed to you literally talking down to them. It makes a child more comfortable and draws their attention to what you are saying while also encouraging a response. It shows them that they have your undivided attention and that you would like the same attention from them. It is a lesson in communication and listening skills. Believe me, your child will appreciate this simple act! My grandson at 3 years of age said to my daughter, “Vovó (grandmother in Portuguese) always kneels down when she talks to me and I really like that!” I was very happy to hear that he noticed this small act and even happier that he appreciated it!
In addition to talking to your child about everything, be sure to read lots of children’s books beginning from birth.
Playing with your child gives you a great opportunity to talk and different games provide you with varied vocabulary to use. When building with legos or blocks talk about what you are doing, describe the shapes of the blocks, the colors and so on. Make up a story to go with the game! When playing outdoors you have all of nature to talk about. Be sure to bring in all the senses and talk about how things feel, smell, etc. The more you play, the more opportunity you have to use language.
Keep this in mind when you welcome your baby home – she is an empty vessel ready to learn and grow. By speaking to your child about the world that surrounds her and by using rich vocabulary you are laying the foundation for a child who will have a sophisticated level of understanding and be an enthusiastic lifelong learner.
Keep talking to and with your child no matter their age!