When babies are born it looks as if they don't understand anything from what we are saying. They can't talk and they still can't even coo. Words are seemingly of no importance.
Does it make sense then to talk to babies at such a young age? Experts are unanimous in their answer - a resounding yes.
Their most important advice for parents is:
"Parents, talk to your baby - the earlier and more often, the better."
Why is it so important to talk to the baby?
Because babies have a hardwired need for interaction from birth.
By talking to babies, we help them learn our language and have good verbal skills when they grow up. But that's not all. We foster their development at many levels. Through communication we create a special connection with them that helps them feel loved, safe and calm, and thus ready to explore and learn from the world.
At a physiological level, every word a baby hears activates certain cells in its brain and the neural connections between them. The more the baby is talked to, the stronger and more branched these connections in the brain become. Conversely, if the baby is continually left on its own and ignored, the cells in the brain do not activate, become redundant and eventually die.
In other words, when talk to our little ones a lot - especially during the key age from birth to 3 - we help their brains develop and make them smarter. When they grow up, they will be able to use more words, speak and read better, comprehend what is written in their textbooks and do well in school.
Where and when should we talk to the baby?
The answer here is simple - anywhere and anytime.
During feeding, bathing, diaper changes, walks with the pram or chores around the house. It's easy but very effective to simply describe objects and activities from our everyday life. In the beginning, we may feel silly talking to the newborn and getting no reaction. But there is more that meets the eye (or in this case, the ear). The baby listens and "absorbs" every word, and after only a few months it starts cooing, smiling and laughing in response.
Babies are actually ready for our talks while still in the womb. In the last 3 months of pregnancy they can already hear voices from the outside world and even begin to learn the language. Of course, the mother's voice has a leading role, and newborns can recognize and prefer it to other voices. Although they do not yet understand the meaning of words, they are able to catch the tone, rhythm and melody of the mother's language.
It's interesting to know there is a moment when talking to newborns is most effective and that is the "quiet alert" state. This is when the baby's body is relaxed and eyes are wide open. It focuses intently on the caretaker's face and voice. These short minutes are the perfect learning time, so it's important for parents to be able to recognize and use them.
Did you know that?
Studies show that growing up in a family where two languages are spoken (for example, Romani and Bulgarian) leads to better development of some executive brain functions. For example, bilingual children are better at redirecting their attention and problem-solving.
How should we talk to the baby?
The way we pronounce words is just important as, if not more important, than the words we use. Babies need not only to hear the sounds of speech but all that is involved in real communication - eye contact, smiles, facial expressions and gestures, even short pauses where there would be an answer in a natural conversation.
For most of us, the natural way to communicate with a baby is the so-called "baby talk". But is it beneficial? Isn't it better to talk to babies in a more sophisticated adult way, so that they learn more?
It turns out that babies learn most effectively when we talk to them precisely using the "silly" baby talk. This does not mean changing proper for made-up words like "wa-wa" instead of "water". What speeds up language development is to speak correctly but slowly, with more simple words and many repetitions. Baby talk is expressive and and melodic and resembles singing. Babies love the positive emotions it conveys and find it more clear and easier to listen to than normal adult speech.
You can learn more about baby talk from the short video by UNICEF below.
Leong, V et al. Speaker gaze increases infant-adult connectivity. PNAS; 28 Nov 2017; DOI: 10.1101/108878
Dean D’Souza, Daniel Brady, Jennifer X. Haensel, Hana D’Souza. Is mere exposure enough? The effects of bilingual environments on infant cognitive development. Royal Society Open Science, 2020; 7 (2): 180191 DOI: 10.1098/rsos.180191
Hart, Betty; Risley, Todd (2003). „The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3“ (PDF). American Educator: 4–9.
"This publication was created with the financial support of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria under the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area. The entire responsibility for the content of this publication lies with the Health and Social Development Foundation and under no circumstances can it be assumed that this publication reflects the official opinion of the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area and the Operator of the Active Citizens Fund Bulgaria."