Talk to Your Baby

BY Kendra Hurley

Last spring, posters with wide-eyed babies and doting parents appeared on subway cars. Their message: “Talk to Your Baby. Their Brains Depend On it.” 

The $1 million city-sponsored campaign, which is part of a larger public awareness effort that includes distributing 200,000 book bundles to families, was inspired in part by the seminal finding made 20 years ago that by age 3, a child from a low-income family has already heard 30 million fewer words than a child from a wealthier home. This disparity, the study found, sets lower-income kids behind educationally long before they enter kindergarten. 

Researchers found “high quality” communication as likely to occur in low-income homes as in more affluent ones.

A growing body of research has added nuance to this so-called “word gap” finding by demonstrating that it is not merely the quantity of words a young child hears that matters when it comes to building vocabulary and later school success. The quality of communication between parent and child may be even more crucial: talking in a baby voice, responding to a baby's coos promptly, and even using the kind of exaggerated smiles and other facial expressions pictured in the “Talk to Your Baby” posters may all help kids learn language. 

In one study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2013, adult participants watched muted videos of parents talking to their toddlers, and were asked to guess from a parent’s nonverbal cues what words they spoke. Three years later, the children of parents whose words were easily identified had larger vocabularies than the kids of parents whose words could not be guessed.

This correlation held true even when the researchers controlled for number of words spoken, implying that quality of communication had an effect on building vocabulary over and above any effect of quantity of communication.

In one of the study’s most striking findings, researchers found “high quality” communication as likely to occur in low-income homes as in more affluent ones. The authors speculated that the well-documented difference in vocabulary between preschoolers from poor and affluent families may result not from differences in the quality of their parents' communication, but because of “the greater amount of talking by parents to their children in higher socio-economic homes, which, in turn, increases the number of quality learning instances encountered overall.” 

In other words, quantity may matter largely because the more interactions a child has with a parent, the more chances she has for quality communication. 

With this in mind, Sarah Walzer, one of the city's literacy experts as CEO of the Parent-Child Home Program, says the "Talk to Your Baby" campaign is "a good reminder for parents up and down the economic spectrum." But she adds a cautionary note for anyone who imagines the education should stop there: “If you're telling them to talk to their child in the grocery store when nobody talked to them in the grocery store, they aren't going to know how to do that."

Find more information about the Talk to Your Baby campaign here