Link copied to clipboard

How does a baby figure out which mouth movements make what sounds? New research from the University of Washington suggests that baby’s brains are busy with just that task in the months ahead of being able to actually talk. And these necessary brain changes are linked to the conversations babies hear.

Like a lot of complex skills, we adults often forget how many steps are involved and the micro-skills necessary for mastery. We don’t remember that when we learned to walk, we didn’t just learn how to put one foot in front of the other, but learned how to balance our weight, how to shift weight from one side to the other, and how to coordinate our weight with our feet with the movements of our arms. Walking is not so simple as it seems, and neither is talking.

Learning to talk is not just a matter of mastering a few vocabulary words but of figuring out how to move one’s lips and tongue to make the sounds a child hears being said. Without any sort of guide, babies break this code. The babbling infants do is a form of practice. But in order to actually transition from babbling to saying a first word, a child has to hear the word and move his mouth in the right way to duplicate it. This takes a special sort of brain development and that’s where parents come in.

Researchers have found that hearing speech sounds stimulates the areas of the brain that coordinate and plan movements needed for speech.  This is news. It’s not just that hearing words communicates meaning to a child. Hearing words changes the brain’s motor cortex so that a baby can move her mouth in the right way.

This change happens sometime between seven and 11 months of age. According to lead author, Patricia Kuhl, “Finding activation in motor areas of the brain when infants are simply listening is significant, because it means the baby brain is engaged in trying to talk back right from the start and suggests that 7-month-olds’ brains are already trying to figure out how to make the right movements that will produce words.”

What does this mean for you and your baby?

Like most skills, learning to talk is more complicated and takes longer to master than it actually appears. And like most developmental abilities, parents’ attention and care are the keys.

Talk with your baby!


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.


The research has been around for over 40 years but some parents still haven’t got the message.  Babies need conversation. Small children need conversation.  Conversation is essential to children’s intellectual development.

And some children get more – much more – conversation than others. It adds up by preschool to a 30 million word gap.

A study conducted in 1968 by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, described in their book Meaningful Differences, tallied the number of words 40 children heard on average in the first three years of life. The differences were astonishing, with some toddlers hearing only about 500 words per hour (that’s just 10 words each minute) and some toddlers hearing more than twice that number. Children who hear more words per hour at age three heard more words earlier in life, meaning they had heard more words each hour for more total hours. It all added up to a difference at age three of about 30 million words.

New studies have replicated Hart and Risley’s original findings. The difference in the level of family conversation has not leveled out.  Stanford University is the latest to report this difference and also evidence of a difference in children’s thinking ability at 18 months. This is important. A bigger, richer vocabulary is not just good all by itself. Conversation isn’t just conversation. When parents talk with their small children, children develop concepts and learn to think in ways that children miss out on if their parents don’t talk to them much.

So words are important but it’s not just quantity of talk, it’s quality too. As Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics at University of Chicago puts it, “We can’t just have people saying 30 million times ‘stop it!’ It’s got to be much more.” And of course, if parents are have lots of conversations with their children, they are doing more than just barking orders. They are talking about what’s happening, what they might do next, how things feel and look and taste, and they’re asking children to share their opinions too. They’re asking questions and giving answers.

Children who don’t hear very many words get a double-whammy: they not only have few conversations but the conversations they do have tend to be unpleasant. When parents don’t have much to say to their kids, what they do say tends to be direct orders and corrections, not pleasant interactions.

Research into number of words heard at first drew a connection between conversation level and family finances. It found that children in the poorest households were talked with less by their parents than more advantaged children were. Now this isn’t so clear. Now, alarmingly, low levels of conversation are linked as well to affluent parents who spend a lot of time on their cell phones and tablets, talking or texting with people other than their children. Overheard conversations and talk on radio or TV don’t count. They don’t increase a child’s experience with language. Even your own child could be at risk.

What can you do?

A great resource for parents is the Three Million Words initiative in Chicago, and its lovely website.

The tremendous difference in words heard in just three years should be a wake-up call for all parents. This is easy and it costs nothing. Give your child the gift of conversation and start today!



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

If you’ve ever fed a toddler soft food, you know the outcome: food on her face, in her hair, between her fingers, all over the high chair tray, and quite a bit on her clothes and even on the floor. A mess!

But also a lesson. Babies who mush up their oatmeal and fingerpaint with the pureed squash are actually learning about non-solid objects. They are expanding their vocabularies and their notion of how the world works.

In a word, messy eaters get smarter.

It’s easy to learn about solid objects. Blocks, stuffed toys, cars and balls keep their shape and can be rotated and played with without changing. But how do children learn about squishy things? Researchers at the University of Iowa wanted to know.

So they put 70 16-month-old children in front of 14 non-solid objects, like applesauce, pudding, and soup. The children were allowed to do what they wanted with each substance, including touching it, smelling it, and eating it. After one minute, the scientists asked children to identify the same subject when it was presented in a different amount and in different shapes. This meant that children couldn’t rely on looks alone to identify the substance but had to know more about it.

This is important, as lead author Lynn Hall pointed out. “For a lot of non-solid stuff, you can’t really tell what it is just by looking at it. What matters is what it’s made of. Is that whiskey or ice tea in the glass you just grabbed? Or similarly, for children, is that baby lotion or strawberry yogurt?” Touching, tasting and smelling are the only ways to really know. Says Hall, if children have “a lot of practice touching and eating non-solid foods, then they know it’s okay to get in there and figure it out.”

Children in the study who did the most messing around with the foods in the one minute they had, were better able to identify the same foods when it was disguised. In addition, children did better when they were sitting in a high chair than when they were sitting at a regular table. The high chair spelled an exploration zone, apparently, and helped children investigate more.

What’s the take-away? Realize that when your child is making a mess with his food, he’s learning a lot about the food and what soft solids do. He’s learning how to think. Yes, he’s getting it everywhere and naturally you want some of that to go inside his tummy. But being obsessive over cleanliness in the high chair might actually inhibit learning.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

It just makes sense: kids who have large, rich vocabularies when they start kindergarten do better in school than kids who do not. In order to read words, for example, a child has to know words and be able to use them. So teaching children a large number of words during the preschool years is a smart move for parents to make.

Research has long backed this up. Studies have compared the number of words two-year-olds hear per hour and have come up with vast differences from child to child and family to family. In general, parents who have more education and more free time to spend with their children use more words in talking with them. These same studies have demonstrated that two-year-olds who hear few words per hour are less ready for kindergarten when they turn five than children who hear more.

Now a new study adds a new wrinkle. According to a paper from the University of Chicago, it’s not only the number of words parents use in talking with their children that makes a difference. It’s also the non-verbal cues – like showing or pointing – that helps children understand. Researchers found that nearly a quarter of the vocabulary growth preschoolers experience is determined by parents’ use of non-verbal cues.

For example, saying “Look at that zebra!” while pointing to the animal helps a child learn the word “zebra” more quickly than just saying, “Let’s go see the zebra.”

Another finding from this study was that a family’s wealth or poverty was not a deciding factor in children’s ability to learn to talk. What mattered was simply the number of words heard and parents’ use of pointing and showing to help children understand. But there were large difference there. Some parents provided non-verbal cues only 5% of the time while other parents provided cues 38% of the time

Of course, parents want their children to do well in school. But school success starts early, in the simple things moms and dads do with kids who are only two or three or four. Here are some ideas:

  1. Take time to carry on conversations. The more you and your child talk together, the smarter she becomes. For some parents, it seems silly to talk about the weather to a toddler. But once you make a habit of talking about anything and everything, your child will start to respond back.
  2. Take time to listen to your child. The way to know what words your child knows is to hear him use them in his own speech. To use words, a child has to have a kindly listener. Even though it sometimes takes kids a long time to say what they want to say, try your best to give them the time. Remember they’re new at this.
  3. When you talk, try to show what you mean. You can point to things, or pick them up. You can demonstrate words like “under” and “beside.” You can say something like, “I’m going to share my cookie with you,” emphasizing the word “share” as you break the cookie in two and give the child a portion.
  4. Remember that talking with your child costs nothing. No matter how advantaged or unadvantaged you feel your family is, you can start your child on the path to success just by talking with him. Conversation levels the playing field.

Being able to use a lot of different words is so important to children’s development. Show and tell your child what’s going on in her world, as much as you can.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

Your baby had nearly fully-developed hearing even in the last few months before birth. He was eavesdropping on your conversations even in the womb. Learning language is that important: the hardware to hear is ready to go from the first moments of life.

So why does it take nearly two years for your child really to start to talk? Is there any reason to pay attention to a baby’s language much before age two?

Actually, a lot happens for language development in the first few months of life. Babies hear what is spoken around them and their brains shape themselves to be receptive to only the speech sounds the babies hear. By about 10 months, babies who once could hear any speech sound of any language in the world have narrowed their focus to only the speech sounds of the language spoken at home.

Babies practice those speech sounds. They babble. They babble in what sound like sentences. They seem to be trying to communicate, long before they can actually speak.

Slowly, your baby refines his babbling to imitate the words you emphasize. By about 11 months, your child says his first word, even though your friends couldn’t quite hear it. More words quickly follow and pretty soon other people believe that your kid is talking.

And then, if you talk to your child, the “language explosion” takes over. By the time your child is five he will have learned over 5000 words and will be able to speak in full sentences, ask questions, talk about yesterday and tomorrow, and even lie once in a while. This happens pretty much by itself. Your child is pre-programmed to learn to talk. It just happens.

So if kids learn to talk pretty much on their own, what’s your role? Do parents matter?

Absolutely. In fact, you’re the most important part of the puzzle. Without you, your child would have had the potential to speak but never really got there. Those 5,000 words by age five? Those come from you.

But the 5,000 words don’t come as vocabulary lessons. Teaching a child to talk is not like cramming for the SAT. The 5,000 words come in everyday conversations together, talking about the weather and what you did today and what’s for dinner.

Your role is to model language. You talk with your child as if she were a friend. You ask about her day, talk about what clothes she wants to wear and so on. You ask questions and wait for the answers. When you talk to your child, you don’t just give orders. You don’t just speak in as few words as possible. You demonstrate how people talk. To learn language, children have to hearlanguage and they have to have practice speaking it. That’s what you’re there for.

So be extravagant. Use lots of words, use complicated sentences, say silly things. The more you use language with your child the smarter he will get. As long as you let your child talk too, more language from you means more language for him.

It’s easy to get impatient. You’re busy, you don’t have much time. If you wait for your kid to tell you something you’ll never get anywhere. But if you don’t wait, you’re kid will never get anywhere. You’ve got to slow down and take the time to talk. And to listen.

Think of something you learned that required some practice but is now automatic. Maybe you learned to drive a car or ride a bicycle or make pancakes. The first few tries were probably not all that successful. Even after you mastered the techniques, you had to be careful to remember all the steps. You had to think about it. You were slow.

But you learned. You got faster with practice. Now you hardly need to think. But if someone had taken over—because you were so slow—and done things for you, you would never have learned. You might even have felt that the job was too hard for you. It might’ve seemed easier just to let someone else do it.

You want your child to learn to talk, and not only that, you want your child to learn to talk well. You want him to be able to put his thoughts into words and to think new thoughts because he has the language to do that. And learning this takes practice. It takes time to master.

Speaking might be natural, but it still takes time and loving parents to get really good at it.