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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.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.