Research Summary

Why Talking to Babies and Toddlers Matters

1.  Infancy is a crucial time for neurological and cognitive development. Verbal interaction  stimulates brain development that needs to happen in the first three years of life. 

            “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world.  No matter the language, the culture, the nuances of vocabulary, or the socioeconomic status, language is the element that helps develop the brain to its optimal potential.  In the same way, the lack of language is the enemy of brain development.” (Thirty Million Words, Building a Child’s Brain,  Dana Suskind, M.D., p. 1,  2015.)

            “Neurologically, infancy is a critical period because cortical development is influenced by the amount of central nervous system activity stimulated by experience. Behaviorally, infancy is a unique time of helplessness when nearly all of the children’s experience is mediated by adults in one-to one interactions.” (Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Hart and Risley, p. 193)

            “A surprisingly simple dimension of family life [the amount of parent-child interaction per hour] is profoundly related to children’s cognitive development.” (The Social World of Children Learning to Talk, Hart and Risley, p. 170)

            “A large percentage of our physical brain growth is complete by the time we are four years old. The ease with which we learn as children and the design of our entire lives are heavily predicated on what happens in those first years.” (Thirty Million, p. 51)


2. Talking to an infant creates the brain circuitry that forms a framework for all other learning. Increased talking puts children on a trajectory to continually learn faster and more easily.

            “Cognitively, experience is sequential: Experiences in infancy establish habits of seeking, noticing and incorporating new and more complex experiences, as well as schemas for categorizing and thinking about experiences.“ (Meaningful Differences, p. 193)

            “The data show that the first 3 years of experience put in place a trajectory of vocabulary growth and the foundations of analytic and symbolic competencies that will make a lasting difference to how children perform in later years.”  (Social World, p. 193)

            “The brain, unlike almost all other organs, is unfinished at birth.  . . .  [T]he brain is almost entirely dependent on what it encounters on its ride to full development. . . .  Within a few years after birth, a relatively small blip of time, a brain circuitry that is remarkably strong or  dangerously weak or somewhere in between will be created, affecting a lifetime of attainment.” (Thirty Million, p. 52)
             “Brain development . . . occurs in a hierarchical fashion, with the basic abilities providing the foundation on which the more complex ones are built. . .  This is especially critical in language accrual, because language, during the first three years, in addition to helping build vocabulary and conversational skills, helps provide a foundation for social, emotional, and cognitive development.” (Thirty Million, p. 62)
            “Who would have guessed that Daddy cooing ‘Who loves his honey bunny’ to an infant who is just beginning to focus could be that important?  But it is; very, very important, as a matter of fact. In tiny step-by-step increments, the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ the ‘mommy loves you’ and the ‘what a sweetie pie’ are the catalysts quietly connecting the brain’s billions of neurons to create the complex neural circuitry that will culminate in a child’s intellectual potential being realized.” (Thirty Million, p. 54.)
3. The amount of talk a child hears is more important than the subject the parent is talking about, and babies and very young child should hear many, many thousands of words each day.
            “No special ways of speaking are needed for children learning to talk . . . the most important aspect of parent talk is its amount. Parents who just talk as they go about their work expose their children to 1,000 words per hour, and in some families it is 2,000 words per hour.”  (Social World, pp. 192-193)
            “Guidance to parents doesn’t have to encourage parents to talk differently, just to talk more,” stated Dr. Todd Risley.
            “Creating a rich language environment also does not mean carving out dedicated blocks of time in an already busy life. The Three Ts [Tune-in, Talk more, Take turns] are designed to become a natural part of everyday activities, no matter how mundane. By adding words, a parent or caregiver transforms making the bed or peeling apples or sweeping the floor into a brain-building experience.  Ultimately, these words will be an important part of enhancing the parent-child relationship as well as the child’s brain.” (Thirty Million, p. 134.)

4. More talking naturally leads to greater vocabulary use and a wider range of more complex sentences, making the language experience richer.

            All parents engage in the “business talk” of family life with their small children.  “Don’t throw the Cheerios!”  “Are you stinky?”  “Mama loves you.”  “Where are your shoes?” 

            When parents go beyond the business of child rearing at hand, they talk about the world around them, compare, analyze, talk about relationships of things, and emphasize names, relationships and recall.   (Meaningful Differences, summary of p. 192)

            Talk about all the non-urgent, unimportant things in the world around the child and you  will offer richer language experiences, advises Risley.

            Language is more nuanced and complicated when it is describing what is happening in the moment.  Parents who use more complicated sentences, with a greater variety of words have children with greater vocabulary and IQ scores in later years.  (Meaningful Differences, p. 146)

5. Talking is how we teach and socialize our children.
            “The invisible curriculum of child rearing focuses parent talk on what children need to know: first the basics, the name of all the things and actions required in order to give and follow directions; the social routines for polite giving and getting; and finally, preparation for school by naming colors, counting, and reciting age and name. (Meaningful Differences, p. 98)

6.  Talking transmits values.
            “Parent talk defines and labels what children should notice and think about the world, their family and themselves, and suggest how interesting and important various objects, events and relationships are.  Words and sentences, internalized as symbols, become a means for organizing experience and rationalizing and relating it, as well as the basis for logical thinking, problem solving and self-control.” (Meaningful Differences, p. 100)

7. Television, radio, music and computers cannot replace personal human interaction with infants and language development.
            Children do learn from television. They pick up words and songs, and it can give them social referencing.” (Meaningful Differences, page 116, citing research of Huston, Wright, et al.)  Devices, however, lack the significant and stimulating social interaction, the “language dancing,” that occurs when parent and child engage in conversation and listen and respond to each other.
            “[W]hy can’t we just sit them [babies] in front of a television and call it a day? . . . The brain may be brilliant, but . . . it is a social creature.  Taking away the interaction may also critically limit its ability to learn and retain knowledge. Unlike pitchers that will hold anything you pour into them, the brain appears to be more like a sieve without the human interaction.” (Thirty Million, p. 72)

8. There is a huge difference in family language experiences and it is creating a huge difference in the abilities of children as they enter kindergarten.

        In talkative families parents are addressing their children with an average of 2,100 words per hour, as contrasted to other less talkative families that may only speak 600 to 1200 words per hour. (Meaningful Differences, p. 169) Extrapolating the numbers, by kindergarten some children have heard 30 million more words than others. The “word gap,” as it is commonly called, has implications that are staggering, according to Hart and Risley.

            “The amount of family talk predicted the children’s intellectual accomplishments,” stated Dr. Todd Risley.  He and his partner Betty Hart observed a group of children in the years while they were learning to talk, and tested them again at 9 years old. There was a high correlation for IQ and school success at age 9 to the amount of talking heard between zero and three years of age.

            There are common patterns in which families talk a lot or a little to their babies.  Families in economic distress often do not talk as much to their babies as much as financially secure families do.  Families with high education levels often talk a lot more to their babies. (Meaningful Differences, pp. 119-134)
            Closing the word gap through parent involvement would be the most cost-effective way to improve education and children’s lives.  Talking to baby is a choice parents can make that is free, takes no equipment or significant training and will have enormous impact.  Risley suggests helping parents know how important it is to talk to their baby is one of the significant things the education community could do, in part because parents pass on to their children their parenting style. (Meaningful Differences, p. 77)  “Even patterns of parenting were already observable among the children [in the study.]  When we listened to the children, we seemed to hear their parents speaking; when we watched the children play at parenting their dolls, and we seemed to see the futures of their own children.” (Meaningful Differences, p. 177)

9.  Parents who also listen, respond, and imitate the sounds their baby makes develop stronger emotional bonds with their baby.
            “Something special happens, though, when this amount of talk is embedded in conversation.  Beyond encouraging practice and providing language experience, conversation contributes to the parent-child relationship.  . . . The relationship is expressed naturally in quality features such as the responsiveness, gentle guidance, positive affect, and language diversity that characterize the extra interactions undertaken by close friends.” (Social World, p. 193)
            “To children trying out their first words, parent imitation appeared to be truly the highest form of compliment, a signal that the parent was listening and in enthusiastic agreement that the child had said a meaningful word in the adult’s language.” (Meaningful Differences, p. 109)
            “Conversation is a social dance that involves not just talking, but also speaking and listening with another person.” (Social World, p. 194)

10. Verbal affirmation is an important part of high quality language experiences for children.                

Hart and Risley observed “powerful dampening effects on development when relatively more of the children’s interactions began with a parent-initiated imperative (“Don’t,’ ‘Stop,’ ‘Quit’), that prohibited what the child was doing. (Meaningful Differences, p.147)  When a persistent and negative feedback tone was the model for children of how families worked together, the data showed lowered child accomplishments lasting still at age 9. (Meaningful Differences, p. 178)

            One of the qualities of talkative families with children who had larger vocabularies at age 3 was the number of times parents affirmed the child’s behavior or gave encouragement. “We saw the daily efforts of these parents to transmit an educationally advantaged culture to their children through the display of enriched language; through the amount of talking they did and how informative they were; and through the frequency of gentle guidance, affirmative interactions, and responsiveness to their children’s talk.”  (Meaningful Differences, p. 179)

            Suskind cites a study about praise in the first years of life. “The study had shown that by the time children were 14 months old, parents had already established a “praise style,” that is for “smartness” versus praise for effort.  Five years later, they found that children who had received a higher proportion of . . . praise for diligence and effort in the first three years , were much more likely to have a growth mindset orientation to life at seven to eight years of age.  Even more compelling, they found that growth mindset predicted math and reading achievement from second to fourth grades. These children . . . were prone to believe that their successes were the result of hard work and overcoming challenges and that their abilities could improve with effort.” (Thirty Million, p. 106)

Background on the sources cited:
Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences in the lives of Young American Children,  by Betty Hart, Ph.D. and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D., 1995, Paul H. Brooks Publishing
The Social World of Children Learning to Talk, by Betty Hart, Ph.D. and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D., 1999, Paul H. Brooks Publishing
            In 1965, Betty Hart, Ph.D. and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D., professors at the University of Kansas, became involved in trying to design a language rich preschool program for disadvantaged four year old children to help them succeed in kindergarten. They felt that they could be part of the War of Poverty by enriching the early education opportunities for America’s children. Their efforts did not live up to their hopes. By 1982 Hart and Risley realized something was happening in the lives of young children before they ever reached preschool. This led Hart and Risley to conduct their landmark 2 ½ year longitudinal study with 42 families, where they observed and recorded 1300 hours of data as they watched what went on in a variety of American families who were raising their babies. Hart and Risley spent three years observing babies in a family setting and another three years transcribing the observation data and years more analyzing their data. By then the babies in the original study were 9 years old and they were able to conduct follow-up tests that confirmed their conclusions.  Hart and Risley summarized their research work in 1995 in the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences in the lives of Young American Children, and in 1999 in The Social World of Children Learning to Talk.

Thirty Million Words, Building a Child’s Brain, by Dana Suskind, M.D., and Beth Suskind, 2015, Dutton.
            Dr. Dana Suskind became aware of the huge significance of hearing language in brain development in her work as a cochlear implant surgeon.  She is on the faculty at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, and is the founder and director of the Thirty Million Word Initiative, which is a research program studying the critical importance of early language experiences in the life of a developing child.  For the best language environments for children she suggests the Three Ts:  Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns.

Prepared by Diane L. Mangum, September 2015