CTV News: Talk to babies and let them babble back to bridge word gap

Photo Credit: Unsplash User  Mindy Olson

Photo Credit: Unsplash User Mindy Olson

Scientists have long known the power of simply of talking to babies -- the sooner the better. A landmark 1995 study found that poor children hear a fraction of the words their peers in wealthier homes do, adding up to about 30 million fewer words by age 3. The reasons are myriad. If mom's exhausted from two jobs, she's less likely to read that extra bedtime story or have time to explore "this little piggie" when putting on a tot's socks.

Those children have smaller vocabularies and lag academically, and can find it hard to catch up. That's in part because early experiences shape how the brain develops in those critical first years of life.

A February 18, 2017 article by Lauren Neergaard for The Associated Press reported on a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston, where new research was presented on the “word gap”, showing that early intervention can at least boost the words at-risk infants and toddlers hear, and maybe influence some school-readiness factors.

Researchers outlined some promising early findings at the meeting, but noted the problem is about more than word quantity.  "Yes, you can talk more, but what is the quality of your language?" said Caitlin Molina, executive director of the Providence Talks program. "It's not just the adult word count but the conversational turns, the back and forth, that engage the child."

In the article, Neergaard reports on some programs that are offering supported training to parents and monitoring impacts.

Providence Talks has enrolled more than 1,300 babies and toddlers since 2014 in programs that train parents to build in more conversation during the day. First, coaches provide strategies. Don't just read the book but ask about the pictures. Turn off the radio in the car to talk about where you're going. Describe the colours when dressing a tot, and pause to give them a chance to babble back.

Then, one day every two weeks, the children wear a small recorder that counts how many words they hear and the number of those "conversational turns." It can count the returning baby babble but not the TV or radio. Parents are given the scores, to track their own progress.

Early results show two-thirds of participating families improve. Children who started the program hearing an average of 8,000 words a day were averaging 12,000 a day when the coaching ended, Molina said.

Brown University has begun an independent study to track whether the improvement was enough to make a difference once those children begin kindergarten.

In New York, Mendelsohn is studying a program that coaches parents at the pediatrician's office, while they're waiting for routine well-baby visits. The coaches use a prop -- a free book or toy -- to explain strategies for conversation and engagement, and record the parent trying. Going over the video shows what he or she did right and where to improve.

More than 400 at-risk families were randomly assigned to the video coaching or standard pediatric visits. By age 3, youngsters in the coaching program did better at imitation play and attention, and displayed less hyperactivity, Meldelsohn reported. He said the benefits appear to last as he's tracking the first children in that study who've reached kindergarten age.