Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Why is talking to babies and toddlers so important?

Trude Haecker, MD tells us that the more we verbally interact with our infants and young children, the better their language development will be during this time. As it turns out, language acquisition in the early years may be a good predictor of later school success.

Why is talking to babies and toddlers so important?


Today's guest blogger is Trude Haecker, MD, a pediatrician and the medical director of the Reach Out and Read program at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She is also the medical director of Quality Improvement and Departmental Patient Safety Officer at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Care Network.

Jennifer was sitting on her young mother’s lap as I entered the exam room with a new infant board book in my hand. She was here for her 9-month check-up. She was not particularly interested in me, but as I opened the book with its bright pictures of animals and began reading a page or two, her eyes lit up and she began patting the book. A gentle smile appeared on her face as she babbled a bit as we interacted around this very simple book.  I shared with her mom how smart her baby was and the excitement that I saw in her face . “She can see the pictures and understand my words,” I told her. It was a brief bonding moment for the three of us—sharing the experience of watching her amazing infant brain at work.     

The human brain is a remarkable organ. Research on early brain development is changing our perspective of infants’ capabilities and the rapid progression of  development, particularly in the area of speech and language acquisition both receptively (understanding) and expressively (speaking). 

Research has shown that a baby as young as six months can link the sound pattern of the word “mommy” and “daddy” to video images of their parents and not to other adults. In fact, infants can detect sounds in their native language preferentially before 12 months of age. Researchers found that infants as young as 12 months who were growing up in poorer families had fallen behind their middle class counterparts in the ability to learn to talk.  In fact, the child growing up in poverty may hear millions fewer words at home than a child growing up in a home with a professional family.  According to Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, investment in the early brain and high-quality early learning is the most effective “return on investment” for disadvantaged youth.

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The more we talk to and with infants and young children, the better their language development will be during this time. It turns out that language acquisition in the early years may be a good predictor of later school success. The verbal interaction between an infant and nurturing caregiver is crucial to development, so in fact reading aloud to a young infant can stimulate brain development in a way no passive media such as TV or videos can.  Neurons (brain cells) are burgeoning in the first 1,000 days (three years) of life and will in fact be pruned back if a child’s caregiver is not interactive and engaging in talking, reading and free play.  

Among the many pieces of advice pediatricians give parents (and there are many), a key message during those first crucial months and years is to talk and read to your infant. Reach Out and Read is one way to combat the discrepancy between low-income families and their more affluent counterparts. A national program in more than 5,000 primary care offices, Reach Out and Read has the mission of empowering parents to become their child’s first teacher by having doctors and nurse practitioners give guidance on the importance of talking to your baby, reading aloud or sharing a book and giving each child a new book at every check-up from 6 months to 5 years of age. That is a library of 10 books prior to starting kindergarten - books that can become the encouragement for shared time with infants and children to enhance later development.  

While that board book may have been Jennifer’s second book from me (through our Reach out and Read program), it will not be her last in our journey together toward kindergarten readiness.


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About this blog
The Healthy Kids blog is your window into the latest news, research and advice around children's health. Learn more about our growing list of contributors here.

If you have questions about your child's health, ask them here.

Anna Nguyen Healthy Kids blog Editor
Sarah Levin Allen, Ph.D., CBIS Assistant Professor of Psychology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Stephen Aronoff, M.D., M.B.A. Chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Temple University Hospital
Peter Bidey, D.O. Medical Director of Family Medicine at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Christopher C. Chang, MD, PhD, MBA, FAAAAI, FACAAI Associate Professor of Medicine in division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Clinical Immunology at UC Davis
Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, Ph.D. Lead Psychologist of The Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Gary A. Emmett, M.D., F.A.A.P Director of Hospital Pediatrics at TJU Hospital & Pediatrics Professor at Thomas Jefferson Univ.
Magee DeFelice, M.D. Chief of Allergy and Immunology at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
Hazel Guinto-Ocampo, M.D. Chief of Pediatric Emergency Services at Nemours duPont Pediatrics/Bryn Mawr Hospital
Rima Himelstein, M.D. Adolescent Medicine Specialist at Crozer-Keystone Health System
Jessica Kendorski, PhD, NCSP, BCBA-D Associate Professor in School Psychology/Applied Behavior Analysis at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
Anita Kulick President & CEO, Educating Communities for Parenting
Janet Rosenzweig, MS, PhD, MPA VP for Programs & Research for Prevent Child Abuse America
Beth Wallace Smith, R.D. Registered Dietitian at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
Emiliano Tatar, M.D. Pediatrician at Einstein Healthcare Network Roxborough Plaza
Jeanette Trella, Pharm.D Managing Director at The Poison Control Center at CHOP
W. Douglas Tynan, Ph.D., ABPP Director of Integrated Health Care for American Psychological Association
Flaura Koplin Winston, M.D., Ph.D. Scientific Director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention
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