Chatting to a baby is pretty much a one-way conversation aside from a few coos and giggles, but science has just discovered that having conversations with your mini-me is important for more than just bonding.
Researchers have found that the conversations we have with our babies do something pretty special to their brain function. It activates the part of their brain used in language comprehension – but only when chatting to baby directly.
The importance of baby talk
In a new study, researchers from Stanford University scanned the brains of sleeping babies aged between just five and eight months, to assess their brain function. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans and special wearable devices (a bit like a step counter, but to track conversations) to record a minimum of eight hours of nearby, clear speech in their homes on typical days.
Then using the data from the device, the researchers calculated how many conversations the babies engaged in with adults. Now we know bubs this young can’t actually talk but their babble is what eventually becomes words, and it’s how they’re able to respond to their parents.
“Before infants are even producing words, our findings indicate that the conversations we have with infants matter for their brain function,” explained the study’s lead author Lucy King. “There seems to be something special about these conversational dynamics between infants and caregivers, versus just the raw amount of stimulation that infants receive.”
Out of the 99 babies who wore the devices, 51 went on to have the fMRI brain scans – which wasn’t exactly easy with little ones. They did scans when the babies were napping, with parents looking on.
How to encourage talking with your baby
You may think babies can’t express how they feel, and that there’s little point in talking to them – but it’s not the case. They’re little sponges absorbing everything, and there are ways to encourage them to find their voice.
According to Raising Children, alert babies are more interested in communicating, so when they’re eyes are wide and bright, they’re making eye contact, display smooth movements, and are reaching out to you, encourage talking by:
- Being enthusiastic, warm and encouraging
- Using lots of facial expressions
- Talking about what baby’s pointing at
- Praising baby if they wave, and waving back.
Direct conversations help brain development
What the researchers found was that babies who engaged in more conversations with adults in their everyday lives had less ‘synchronised activation’ in the part of the brain that processes language stimulation. “It is not clear at this point whether the correlation between more conversational turns and lower functional connectivity in the posterior temporal cortex means that lower connectivity is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing,” Ms King said. “Although we can’t know for sure, we speculate that lower connectivity reflects more efficient brain organisation.”
The researchers explained that this brain effect only happened when a baby was having a direct conversation with an adult, not when they just heard a conversation in the background. They now want to delve deeper into understanding how brain function may be linked to language development.
“Using these data, you can imagine interventions, training programs or parenting programs, aimed at increasing these kinds of meaningful back-and-forth conversations, assuming that the associations that we are documenting with the infant’s brain are going to have significant consequences later in life,” study co-author Ian Gotlib said.
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