Long before they can talk, babies naturally reach out to interact with their parents. Through their facial expressions, babbling and bodily movements, babies communicate what’s going on for them and what they might be needing.
‘Serve and return’ interactions
When parents join the ‘conversation’ by talking and gesturing back to their baby, something amazing happens. These back-and-forth (‘serve and return’) interactions help to build and strengthen the structures in baby’s brain.1
It’s important that parents learn to read what their baby’s signals mean and respond accordingly.2 Having parents and other whānau respond in this way helps a baby to feel understood and important, and through many repetitions they also gradually develop new skills.1
The more of these conversations that children have with their parents, the better their language development will be. Talking and reading ‘with’ children is much better than just talking ‘to’ them.3 This involves the parent in both talking and listening to their child. Similarly, the child gets to talk and listen as well.
One study compared two groups of children. The first group had mothers respond immediately to their communication. The second group received the same amount of talking from their mother, but not in response to the child’s own communication.
The researchers found that the first group (whose mothers had replied to their own communication) vocalised more, and more maturely, than the other group of children.4 This shows that it’s not just the amount of talking babies hear that’s important, but whether they’re having back-and-forth conversations too.
These ‘serve and return’ experiences are so important, and babies are born designed to expect them. When they are absent or infrequent, a baby’s body perceives this as a threat and their stress response system activates.5
The benefits of talking with baby
These repeated chats have a number of benefits for baby’s development. Having their needs and interests responded to is one of the ingredients for a healthy attachment with mum and dad. The amount of language children hear at home affects their language development. Children who hear more language, and a greater variety, have better early literacy skills.6,7 These skills are linked to higher school achievement.
This is something that children growing up in poverty may be missing. It’s been suggested that while children from higher income families began school with an average of 20,000 words, those in poverty had a vocabulary of about 5000 words.8
Putting things right (‘rupture and repair’)
All babies will experience times when they are not responded to straight away. Sometimes parents are caring for another child, dealing with hot food, or in the shower. While this may be distressing for babies, once parents realise this and do respond, their baby’s stress response system is likely to return to normal.
In fact, when baby’s needs are met quickly most of the time, some of these unavoidable disruptions can be helpful. The process of not being responded to, or being responded to in a way that didn’t meet baby’s needs at that time, can help them to develop coping skills, so long as once the parent realises what’s happened, they put things right.
This process of a communication breakdown followed by reconnecting is sometimes called ‘rupture and repair’.9 Another way of thinking about this is that the parent is ‘putting things right’.
Talking about emotions
Children’s ability to handle a range of feelings is an important skill. It’s a central part of managing their behaviour and getting on with others.10,11 Knowing and understanding one’s own feelings, and those of others, is linked to a number of positive outcomes, including fewer behaviour problems.12
The content of what parents and children talk about is important too. Using words to describe emotions is an important part of the child developing emotional regulation — the ability to handle all their feelings.
As children get a bit older, if their parents talk often about people’s feelings and about the morals of their behaviour, they’re more likely to take on their parents’ moral rules and recognise when they’ve done something wrong.13
However, it takes a while and happens in the context of their most important relationships. While it will take many years to fully develop, it starts at the very beginning of a child’s life.
Parents can help this develop by being accepting of their child’s full range of emotions and use words to describe how their child is feeling. One study found that mothers who correctly talked about their baby’s emotions were more likely to have babies with a secure attachment.14
When parents can talk about and accept all types of emotions, their children are better able to learn about their own feelings, and those of others.15 A parent’s ability to accurately ‘read their child’s mind’ is an important aspect of this.16 Parents can try to make an educated guess — for example, ‘It looks like you’re pretty upset about…’
Talking about difficult times
Sometimes parents may be tempted to avoid conversations about events like a death in the family, or a child’s medical treatment, perhaps because they wish to avoid further upsetting their child.
However, when children have had upsetting or painful experiences, being able to talk about these, when they need to, can help them understand and cope better with their experiences.17 Children may come back to the topic over and over again, and that’s to be expected — because this is an important way of them trying to understand what’s happened.
Talking about such experiences can help children to connect the events with how they felt about them, increasing their ability to make sense of what’s happened to them. These talks also help children develop their ability to be more aware of themselves.9
What can get in the way?
Some parents may think that because their baby or young child is not yet talking, parents talking to them is unnecessary or not important. A number of studies indicate that this is untrue.6
Parents’ own history may mean this does not come easily to them, and some will benefit from support as they learn to effectively interact with their baby.6
Also, children who watch a lot of television in their early years may have less well developed language skills.18,3 This may be because television limits the amount of conversation between parent and child.3 Television, and other electronic devices, don’t offer the back-and-forth human interaction that’s so important.
Everyday talking and listening
Sometimes parents will talk about what they’re doing — ‘After we’ve hung out the washing and had lunch, we can go to the park.’ It’s important that parents also notice what their child is interested in and share that interest.
When parent and child are focused on the same object or activity, this is known as ‘joint’ or ‘shared’ attention, and this is when new words and skills are more likely to develop — rather than when adults try to interest the child in something else.6
Parents talking with children is most likely to enhance their language development when their language is ‘just challenging enough for the child’ — not so simple that the child doesn’t learn anything, but not so complicated that they become confused or disinterested.19
When parents use a wide variety of words, they enhance their children’s language development.20 A variety of everyday experiences provide opportunities for this to happen. For example, the words and ideas used when grocery shopping are different from those used at the beach, or while eating a meal. All of these, and many more, are important in laying the foundations for children’s language development.
Children are likely to respond well when they feel listened to, and are able to share their own opinions and have them considered. However, listening to their child’s views doesn’t mean that parents always have to comply with them.21
This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa
- National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young children develop in an environment of relationships: Working paper 1. Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2004/04/Young-Children-Develop-in-an-Environment-of-Relationships.pdf (external link)
- Bornstein, M. H., Putnick, D. L., & Suwalsky, J. T. D. (2016). Infant–mother and infant–caregiver emotional relationships: Process analyses of interactions in three contemporary childcare arrangements. Infancy, 21(1), 8–36.
- Zimmerman, F. J., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J. A., Christakis, D. A., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Teaching by listening: The importance of adult–child conversations to language development. Pediatrics, 124, 342–349.
- Goldstein et al. (2003), cited by Kuhl, P. K. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(11), 831–843. doi: 10.1038/nrn1533
- National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience: Working paper 13. Retrieved from http://developingchild.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/The-Science-of-Resilience.pdf (external link)
- Dodici, B. J., Draper, D. C., & Peterson, C. A. (2003). Early parent–child interactions and early literacy development. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 23(3), 124–136.
- Huttenlocher, J. (1998). Language input and language growth. Preventative Medicine, 27, 195–199.
- Hart & Risley (1995), cited by Rodriguez, E. T., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Spellman, M. E., Pan, B. A., Raikes, H., Lugo-Gil, J., & Luze, G. (2009). The formative role of home literacy experiences across the first three years of life in children from low-income families. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 30, 677–694.
- Siegel, D. J., & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NY: Penguin.
10. Bornstein (2014), cited by Bornstein, M. H., Putnick, D. L., & Suwalsky, J. T. D. (2016). Infant–mother and infant–caregiver emotional relationships: Process analyses of interactions in three contemporary childcare arrangements. Infancy, 21(1), 8–36.
11. Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Knafo (2015), cited by Bornstein, M. H., Putnick, D. L., & Suwalsky, J. T. D. (2016). Infant–mother and infant–caregiver emotional relationships: Process analyses of interactions in three contemporary childcare arrangements. Infancy, 21(1), 8–36.
12. Hughes et al. (1998), cited by Kårstad, S. B., Wichstrøm, L., Reinfjell, T., Belsky, J., & Berg-Nielsen, T. S. (2015). What enhances the development of emotion understanding in young children? A longitudinal study of interpersonal predictors. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33(3), 340–354. doi: 10.1111/bjdp.12095
13. Laible & Thompson (200), cited by Smith, A. B. (2005). Effective discipline and supporting change. Wellington, New Zealand: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
14. Meins, E., Fernyhough, C., Fradley, E., & Tuckey, M. (2001). Rethinking maternal sensitivity: Mothers’ comments on infants’ mental processes predict security of attachment at 12 months. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 42(5), 637.
15. Eisenberg et al. (1998), cited by Kårstad, S. B., Wichstrøm, L., Reinfjell, T., Belsky, J., & Berg-Nielsen, T. S. (2015). What enhances the development of emotion understanding in young children? A longitudinal study of interpersonal predictors. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33(3), 340–354. doi: 10.1111/bjdp.12095
16. Kårstad, S. B., Wichstrøm, L., Reinfjell, T., Belsky, J., & Berg-Nielsen, T. S. (2015). What enhances the development of emotion understanding in young children? A longitudinal study of interpersonal predictors. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33(3), 340–354. doi: 10.1111/bjdp.12095
17. Fivush, R. (1998). Children’s recollections of traumatic and nontraumatic events. Development and Psychopathology, 10, 699–716.
18. Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Paeditrica, 97, 977–982.
19. Zimmerman, F. J., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J. A., Christakis, D. A., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Teaching by listening: The importance of adult–child conversations to language development. Pediatrics, 124, 342–349. (p. 347)
20. Cristofaro, T. N., & Tamis-LeMonda, C. S. (2012). Mother–child conversations at 36 months and at pre-kindergarten: Relations to children’s school readiness. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 12(1), 68–97.
21. Smith, A. B. (2005). Effective discipline and supporting change. Wellington, New Zealand: Office of the Children’s Commissioner.