Keep talking: Amazing new study shows how parents' chats with toddlers pay off 10 years later
"Just talk to them. All the time. About everything you do and everything that happens."
My mum's number one parenting advice when I had my first baby.
And so I did. From my little girl was born, I would chat away to her, as I fed her or changed her nappy or as we strolled around with her in the pram. Commenting on birds and trams and colours and generally just chatting away as she was someone who could actually chat back to me – until she was. I would chat to her in Norwegian, my own native language, and her dad in English, as he is Irish, and really, by the time she was two, she spoke both languages – and not just words, but entire sentences and many, many songs.
So as it turns out, my mum was right about her approach to language and how important it is in early years. And the benefits don't stop at having a child who talks early. According to a study published this week in Pediatrics researchers found that toddlers with parents who spend lots of time listening and chatting with them are more likely to have better language skills and higher IQs a decade later than youngsters left hanging in silence.
"If you knew that children who were fed a certain nutritional diet at age two were not only far healthier as toddlers, but much more likely to be in a healthy weight range at age 12, you'd want to pursue those findings, wouldn't you?" said study author Jill Gilkerson, senior director of research and evaluation at the LENA Foundation, a non-profit charity in Boulder, Col.
"Conversational turns are that diet, that nutrition, for the brain."
To conduct the study, the US-based researchers analyzed more than 9,000 hours of transcribed day-long recordings from 146 Denver-area children ages two months to four years old and their parents. The children had followup tests of their language skills and cognitive abilities, such as working memory and reasoning, between ages nine and 14.
"Conversations are nutrition for the brain"
The families were asked to provide day-long audio recordings for six months. The parent would place the recording device in a vest the young child wears. The software was programmed to automatically count the child's vocalizations and verbal stimulation from their mother or father.
The researchers measured conversational turn-takings, such as if a parent says something and the child responds with a word, babble or coo within five seconds, or a vocalization from the child that the parent responds to within five seconds.
Gilkerson said they found greater conversational turns are more important for developing brains than simply being exposed to words.
The study also says frequent chatting with toddlers accounted for up to 27 per cent of their higher performance in verbal comprehension a decade later, after taking socioeconomic factors into account.
"We were expecting to see correlations based on the previous research with younger children, but can't help but be astounded that automated language measures collected at 18 months can predict anything 10 years later," Gilkerson said. "It is nothing short of remarkable, in my opinion."
The 18- to 24-month period is often called a time of "language explosion."
"Talking to your child, in a reciprocal, conversational way from an early age may improve both their language development and cognitive abilities," said Dr. Laurie Green, a family physician at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, to CBC News.
Other factors tied to a child's language outcomes, such as their family's socioeconomic status, aren't so easy to change, but these new findings suggest that helping parents and caregivers to understand the importance of conversations and giving them the tools to make it part of their daily routines with children is possible and could have important long-term benefits.