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Dads, Don’t Forget to Do This with Your Babies

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Kate Fogarty, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

Do you remember those commercials that used computer animation to make babies “talk” like adults? I found them a bit creepy, though they were also funny. We laugh at these portrayals because, of course, in real life, most babies are pretty inarticulate. However, as parents know, babies are actually communicating–if you take the time to listen.

Talking to Babies Matters

What’s more, babies’ efforts to connect with the people around them are really important. It’s crucial that parents respond to their pleas for engagement—and that we talk to our babies, early and often, using “parentese” (high-pitched, simple language with lots of questions). Decades of research shows that when we engage with babies like this, it makes a huge difference to their long-term verbal development, and even to their overall intelligence.

Learning About Babies’ Language Environments

A new wearable device has recently been invented that can record and analyze all the speech that babies and toddlers hear and produce. This neat little invention (called the LENA) is allowing researchers to find out more about how much and what kind of language children are exposed to (as well as about the speech-like sounds babies themselves use to communicate). In a recent experiment, scientists looked at the “language worlds” of 33 infants. The babies wore the LENAs for about 16 hours at a time on three different occasions—once right after they were born, once around one to two months old, and once at about 7 months.

Moms Way Ahead of Dads

The researchers wanted to learn more about differences between how moms and dads talk to their babies. After looking at the data LENA recorded and analyzed, they found a large difference between men’s and women’s speech to their infants. Moms talked to the babies about three times as much as dads did. Mothers also responded to babies’ sounds, coos and noises much more often than dads.

Perhaps in response, babies tended to “talk back” to their mothers more than to their fathers. And in a finding that could help explain girls’ earlier verbal development (if true on a broader level), moms talked to female babies more than they did to male babies.

The LENAs were used when both parents were home, so it wasn’t that dads weren’t available. However, the devices did show that moms were with the babies more often than dads during the recorded times. Still, that difference in availability wasn’t enough to explain the major gender gap in communication.

It may be the case that fathers are less at ease talking and responding to babies than mothers. However, as we know from other studies, this kind of engagement really matters! In fact, some research suggests that fathers’ speech to infants and toddlers plays a uniquely important role in language development.

Brush up on your “parentese” by visiting the links in Further Reading—and remember to talk just as much to your boys as your girls. Those little people are ready and waiting for the wonder of communication.

Further Reading:

Speak Parentese, Not Baby Talk 

Talking with Infants

References:

Johnson, K., Caskey, M., Rand, K., Tucker, R., Vohr, B. (2014). Gender Differences in Adult-Infant Communication in the First Months of Life. Pediatrics, 134, 1-8. http://dx.doi.org/10.1542/peds.2013-4289

Photo Credits: Jani Bryson/iStock/Thinkstock

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