Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Power of Responding to Your Baby

Most of the posts on this blog so far have been geared toward helping children talk.  This one is, too (after all, why else would it be on a blog called “Child Talk”?!), but with a slightly different twist.  In this post, we’re delving into the world of infant sounds and parent responses to those sounds. Why? Because long before children say their first words, they’re learning all about how the world of speech and language works. And it turns out that mothers play a big part in this process. (I’ll mention here that dads play a big part, too, of course! It’s just that most of the research has to do with moms.  Sorry, dads!) 

One important strategy for helping infants eventually learn the power of words is called contingent vocal imitation, which is a fancy title for a really simple concept. This strategy is all about what parents do in response to their infants’ vocalizations. In other words, when a child coos (makes those sweet, soft vowel sounds), babbles (“bababa” or “badagaba”), or makes any noise at all, what do parents do in response to these sounds?  It turns out that if parents imitate their baby’s sounds, their baby will then make more sounds.  Specifically, their baby is likely to vocalize more often (Pelaez, M., Virues-Ortega, J., & Gewirtz, J., 2011; Dunst, Gorman & Hamly, 2010). This is important because when a baby vocalizes more frequently, people respond more. When people respond more….(you guessed it)...babies vocalize more! In the process, infants learn that their vocalizations have a huge impact on the world around them. They come to understand that they can use sounds to communicate with others. And, boom, language emerges.

Imitation of your baby’s sounds isn’t the only option for responding to his vocalizations, though.  You can also respond by simply acknowledging that he made a noise (“mmm hmmm”), by labeling what he sees (“a dog!”), by commenting on some aspect of what he is looking at (“it’s so pretty!”) or by explaining what he wants (“you want your blanket!”).  Researchers have found that a mom’s “sensitive” responses to her infant’s vocalizations are related to increases in infant vocalizations at 8-14 months of age and to an increased use of words and gestures at 15 months (Gros-Louis, West, & King, 2014). “Sensitive” is defined as acknowledging an infant vocalization in a way that is directly connected to whatever the infant was seeing or doing when he made a sound.  It’s contrasted with a “redirective” approach in which mothers essentially change the topic by directing their infant to look at or pay attention to something else.  

So, the bottom line is this: Listen to your infant! When she vocalizes, respond!  If she’s on the younger side (0-6 months), imitate her sounds - she might just imitate right back.  Even if she doesn’t, she’s likely to vocalize more across time - which gives you more opportunity to respond and gives her increased opportunities to understand that her sounds have an impact on her world.  If she’s older (6-12 months or so), you can still imitate her sounds, but you might also pay close attention to what she’s looking at and respond to that (“Oh, a puppy!” or “It’s so pretty!’ or “You want your bottle?”).  The key is in responding to your infant, rather than directing her to look at things or requiring her to make sounds upon your command. Instead: Wait. Watch. Listen. Respond.  

If this all this sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written about similar concepts before, as it relates to using self talk and parallel talk with toddlers. And if you think you’re already doing this, you probably are! Much of the time, these strategies come pretty naturally to parents.  Now, though, you know why it’s such a powerful thing to do.  Happy babbling!

Dunst, C. J., Gorman, E., Hamby, D. W. (2010). Effects of adult verbal and vocal contingent responsiveness on increases in infant vocalizations.  CELL Reviews, 3, 1-11. 

Gros-Louis, J., West, M, & King, A. (2014). Maternal responsiveness and the development of directed vocalizing in social interactions. Infancy, 19 (4), 285-408

Pelaez, M., Virues-Ortega, J., Gewirtz, J. (2011). Reinforcement of Vocalizations through Contingent Vocal Imitation.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 44, 33-40

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