The Smartest Thing You Can Do For Your Baby

An infant’s brain thrives on words: Feed him/her as many as you can, as often as you can By William Phillips

There’s something about babies that brings out the babbler in all of us. But what parents may view as innocent, entertaining chitchat packs a powerful neurological punch for little ones. Recent studies have found that how—and how much—parents and other caregivers “converse” with a baby, especially during her first year, can have a profound impact on her intellectual development for the rest of her life.

This is because the foundations of the brain development that allow us to be creative, perceptive able to reason and to process and understand new information largely develop during the first 12 months of life. And what promotes that development more than anything else is human speech.

These findings are good news for parents who may worry whether their infant is being properly stimulated and wonder if buying the latest high-tech developmental toys is necessary. Talk may be cheap, but for babies it’s more valuable than a nursery full of pricey gizmos.

How Smart Starts

Most body parts develop according to a predetermined genetic code – limbs reach a certain length, hair grows in curly or straight. By contrast, researchers have discovered that how and to what extent the brain develops depends largely upon the environment, says William Staso, Ph.D., and educational psychologist in Santa Maria, CA. This isn’t to say, however, that genes don’t play a part in a child’s potential.

All infants are born wired to learn: Unless they have neurological problem to experience extreme sensory or social deprivation, they’ll master the basic physical skills—crawling, walking, talking—right on schedule. The same goes for cognitive development: Almost all kids will learn to scribble and then write; recite their ABCs and then read; count on their fingers and then calculate their tooth fairy earnings. How well they’re able to do these things—in other words, how smart they become—depends on the complexity of their brains’ network of neurons, many of which are developed during the first year of life.

Why Talking—A Lot—Is So Important

Further proof of the impact of language on brain development came out in a study by Betty Hart, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. They observed 42 babies of various economic backgrounds from the time the children were 7 to 12 months until they turned 3, spending one hour per month recording their interactions with their parents. The researchers determined the average number of words directed at each child per hours, then compared those numbers with how well each performed on intelligence tests at age 3 and age 9.

“The relationship between the number of words spoken to the children when they were babies and their late test scores was remarkable,” says Hart. “Those testing at the highest levels had been exposed to more than three times the amount of spoken language than had the youngsters who scored the lowest—2,1—words versus 600 words an hour.”

As they grew older, the children whose parents talked to most of them the most continued to have a significant advantage over their peers. “Since children are constantly building upon their prior experiences,” says Hart, “attempting to catch up is almost like running after a speeding train.”

Words to Grow On

How to make use of the findings? Simply chat up your child from day one. Keep in mind that the words should be delivered by an attentive and responsive person, say experts; speak in a way that engages your baby’s attention and solicits a response.

Reading to your child is beneficial as well, since it involves a close interaction between the two of you. Forget feeding your baby’s brain with radio or TV—the effect just isn’t the same.