When we see a toddler, it can be tempting to coo at them with baby talk. Our pitch goes up, our voice gets excessively sweet, and we tend to blabber.
And while it may seem cute and innocuous, all that one-directional baby talk might not be so great for our kids.
How we speak to our kids may be just as important, if not more, as how much we do, according to a recent study published earlier this month in The Journal of Neuroscience.
What did the study find?
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard discovered that back-and forth conversations with kids help them develop better language and comprehension skills — regardless of the family’s socioeconomic status.
“We found that the most relevant component of children’s language exposure is not the sheer number of words they hear, but the amount of back-and-forth adult-child conversation they experience,” lead study author Rachel Romeo, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a statement.
Conversations make stronger connections in the brain
The researchers recruited 40 children (ages 4 to 6) and their parents — from diverse backgrounds, financial situations, and parent education levels — and recorded their conversations over the course of two days.
They studied the amount of words the children heard adults speak, how many words the kids spoke, and the number of turns they took in back-and-forth adult-child conversations.
The researchers then took MRIs of the children to examine their brain pathways.
The kids who engaged in more conversational turn-taking with adults had stronger connections in the Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area — the regions of the brain responsible for the comprehension and production of speech.
The link to socioeconomic status
Previous research has suggested there’s a strong link between socioeconomic status and children’s brain development.
In 1995, an influential study found that children from wealthier families were exposed to approximately 30 million more words compared to children from low-income families.
In response to that study, many researchers claimed that reducing this “word gap” could be the key to closing wealth gaps around the world. Since then, many scientists have been studying how, exactly, exposing children to more words can close achievement gaps in young children.
Interestingly, this new study revealed that a family’s financial situation has little to do with a child’s verbal and cognitive abilities.
“Not only were stronger brain connections seen, but, in addition, the study [is] the first of its kind to find that these positive findings were not linked to socioeconomic status of the child’s household,” Dr. Jill Creighton, a practicing pediatrician and assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine, said.
“Children from less economically privileged households had the same benefits from exposure to conversational language as their more socioeconomic advantaged peers,” Creighton added.
These findings suggest that early intervention programs designed to close the achievement gap should focus on increasing kids’ conversational exposure at an early age, the study noted.
The importance of turn-taking
The researchers have found it’s crucial to not only talk to children, but to talk with them.
Because while talking to children can help them build a rich vocabulary, carrying on a dynamic conversation with them can teach them the importance of listening and turn-taking.
In other words, it’s more about the quality of speech than quantity.
“The act of ‘turn-taking’ is one of the most basic components of human communication,” Ayelet Marinovich, a pediatric speech-language pathologist and founder of Strength in Words, told Healthline. “When you break down a conversation, it’s the act of sending a message to another person, the receipt of that message, and the return of a message.”
According to Marinovich, turn-taking can set up a child for success, especially when it comes to long-term social and emotional development. Young children learn through observation, interaction, and imitation, and turn-taking in conversations provides them with all of this.
“The great news is that parents can do things that promote turn-taking each and every day, with little to no materials, and with just a few moments of their time,” Marinovich explained.
She recommends making a point to pause after you speak or ask a question to give your child the opportunity to respond. Additionally, be supportive and encourage your child to participate in conversations.
So, while it may feel instinctual to dole out the one-sided I love yous, it may be time to step it up a notch and start engaging your child in a back-and-forth conversation.