A pediatrician and mom's hints to help you talk to your baby
There is a moment in a newborn delivery when the mother first talks to her baby — usually just seconds after birth when the wet, crying infant is placed on mom’s abdomen. I get the pleasure of watching the joy in the new mom’s eyes, and hearing the words she picks to welcome her baby into the world. For most moms, this first conversation is spontaneous, unplanned, and natural. When dad gets a chance to hold baby, he’s often silent. Usually the words don’t come so easily to new dads.
I’ve made this observation over more than a decade of attending deliveries, so I was not surprised when a research study showed it’s true: dads don’t respond to babies’ vocalizations as much as moms do.
Researchers attached digital recording devices to vests worn by infants and measured exactly how many times both moms and dads responded to infant vocalizations. More than 3000 hours of audio recording was collected for the study. Each baby was studied at three ages: newborn, 1 month, and 7 months. At each age moms were more likely to talk to babies than dads. Babies were more likely to respond to moms’ speech compared to dads’. Interestingly, parents may respond preferentially to children based on gender: at one month of age dads were more likely to chat with boys and moms were more likely to chat with girls.
This data is more that just interesting trivia — we know that the more language a baby is exposed to the better their literacy, vocabulary, and even interpersonal relationships. These benefits seem to last years if not a lifetime.
Babies who don’t hear enough language fall into what is called the “word gap.” "The word gap refers to the disparity in words that children hear and learn from birth to age 4. Children from higher-income families hear up to 30 million more words than children from lower-income families where talking, reading and singing is not as prevalent,” explains Ann O’Leary, vice president and director of Too Small to Fail, an organization working to help close the word gap.
I must confess, I find it hard to talk to my babies as much as I should. I usually start out strong, looking my infants in the eyes, reading books, and singing to them. But before long the needs of my other children and lingering chores seem to take priority, and it is just too easy to go several hours without talking to my baby. I’ve had five babies over the past ten years, and I’ve found a few tricks to help me talk to my babies more:
1. Diaper change time = talking time: Diaper changes are a moment when your baby has your full attention, so take advantage of the moment and start talking. Not sure what to say? Just talk about that smelly diaper or sing ABCs.
2. Use a baby sling: “Babywearing” or carrying your baby in a sling gives your baby the chance to hear everything you say. You won’t miss one of their little noises, either. Carried babies cry less, too. Infant sling use has been associated with significant medical benefits for both mother and baby.
3. *Sing: If you run out of things to say, sing! Even if you don’t think you have any voice, your baby will be happy with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and ABCs. I have a song book next to the glider in our nursery in case I am bored or can’t remember the words to my favorite songs. I find I can spend a lot more time singing to my infant than trying to make conversation.
4. Read aloud: In our neonatal intensive care unit there are some parents who will just bring a novel and sit by their baby and read it out loud. If you just can’t bring yourself to sing, have your favorite book ready to read to baby.
5. Pray with and for your baby: Use her toes to say the rosary, or just pray out loud. You will teach your child words to last a lifetime.
Kathleen M. Berchelmann, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a mother of five young children. Connect with Dr. Berchelmann at: KathleenBerchelmannMD.com.