How to talk to your baby (and make brain magic happen)

It might feel foolish, but engaging your gurgling, drool machine in conversation early, gives them a big leg up later, says science.

Dad talking to baby

“Words of wisdom,” said James H Newman, one of America’s greatest astronauts, “are spoken by children at least as often as scientists.”

Which goes to show that you can fly four space missions and still be an idiot because no child has ever spoken a word of wisdom.

Children are clueless, mostly befuddled, tedious in conversation. The opposite of wise.

Even a genius-level toddler is dumber than a run-of-the-mill dog, and my dog is scared of the vacuum cleaner, so what can toddlers tell us? I’ll tell you, Space Boy: nothing. Nothing. No infants worked on your precious Space Shuttle.

Obviously, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to speak to children at all. Babies – childhood’s most oblivious specimens – would remain totally silent, and preferably asleep, until they figured out basic commands and could fetch us things from the fridge.

But it’s not a perfect world. So speak with them you must.

It’s not about receiving wisdom. It’s about imparting it. And whether you’re an unemployed shut-in or an astronaut, the sooner you begin, and the more involved you are, the better off your kid will be.

They’re listening

In the first year of its life, a baby’s brain doubles in size. By the time it’s two, bub’s grey matter has tripled in mass, and is three-quarters the size of yours. Over this crucial 24-month period, your kid’s brain creates two million new synapses every second.

Don’t waste that time, because language acquisition, says science, begins astonishingly early. Yes, science! The thing that actually put James H Newman into orbit (as opposed to children, which – again – had nothing to do with it).

“Just because infants can’t form sentences until toddlerhood doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit from early conversations with their parents,” reports Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Babies that are spoken to frequently in an engaging and nurturing way,” they report, “develop faster word-processing skills.”

That’s not word processing as in typing speed – babies will always be crap secretaries. It’s word processing, literally; the skills of language and vocabulary, the development of which massively influences how quickly your kid’s memory and nonverbal cognitive abilities are established.

How quickly they ‘get’ things.

Why well-off kids are smarter

Tip: they’re not. But their advantages aren’t just the most obvious ones.

A 2014 Stanford University study recorded parents’ (admittedly one-sided) ‘conversations’ with their babies. Then they tested those babies’ cognitive skills by tracking how long it took them after hearing a word like ‘dog’ or ‘juice’ to look at that thing.

By the age of two, kids with highly verbal parents were about six months ahead. By three, they were so advanced, comparatively, that their results were a significant indicator of later educational performance – both in and out of school – and, by extension, the quality of life they enjoy throughout their entire existence.

You needn’t be loaded to be well-spoken – but there is a corollary.

In a 2001 study, children of “welfare families” were found to hear about 600 different words an hour; the working class, 1250, and professional families a thumping 2100. By the time they’re three, poor kids’ vocabularies are 55 per cent smaller than those of lawyers’, teachers’ or surgeons’ kids.

Talking early, often, warmly, and with interest to your kid is important to give them opportunities you might not have had. Failing to do so, if your parents did that favour for you, is to be a horrible selfish bastard.

James H Newman’s dad was a doctor.

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA), long before they can speak anything but gobbledygook, babies understand the general cut and thrust of what you’re saying. They also have a natural ear for emotional tone.

As the first step, ASLHA advises smiling often at your sprog, with eye contact, especially when he or she is “cooing, gurgling, or otherwise vocalizing”. Engage with your bub’s burbling stream of gibberish.

If you can, try to establish a back-and-forth rhythm, like an adult conversation, even echoing their babble – “goo-goo-ga-ga!” is fine; they’re not building spaceships. Yet.

Imitate their facial expressions and gestures. Babies learn to talk by imitating you.

Talk often

That high-pitched ‘baby talking’ voice that women do – and, if you’re honest, you find yourself adopting – is instinctive, and totally helps.

According to paediatrician and author Roy Benaroch, it’s mimics the female voice tones which babies “associate with feeding and comfort”.

One-sided conversation can be hard, but as long as you maintain some eye contact and a warm tone, it doesn’t necessarily matter what you’re banging on about. Word salad is fine. Football commentary is fine.

“Hey buddy, it’s okay! Daddy’s just upset because if we’d kicked that he would have won $300 on his multi! Wow, what a fun game, hey! What a stupid dad! What a big stupid!”

Provide running updates on lacing up your shoes, or making dinner, or the importance of The Clash’s seminal London Calling album. Talk about how well he’s rocking his Jolly Jumper. (“Hey buddy! You’re a good bouncer! Are you bouncing? Whoa!”)

Or just read books. Lots of them. See Spot Run, again. Anything. Everything.

But do try to repeat, and point out as you do, those terms your kid will likely learn first: “Where’s mummy? There’s mummy! Hi, mum!”

Stages of learning

By three months, says Benaroch, babies can’t get enough of your voice. From 4-7 months, infants understand they’re communicating with you and will start to vary their vocal pitch while jabbering.

Practice using short words – “dog”, “hat”, “milk” – then pause; often, your kid will respond, then pause – more gibber – a first step to understanding how conversation works.

By 8-12 months, you can look forward to a “dada” or two, albeit accidental at first. Keep reinforcing common words, like “mum”, and their name.

Read them books. Sing silly songs. Enunciate clearly. Play baby games, “Where is Sid? Where is he? THERE HE IS!”

Do this everywhere and anywhere. At home, in shopping centres, at work family days. Don’t be embarrassed; it’s shameful not to be giving your child a leg-up, not to be doing all you can.

It’s okay to sound like an idiot. You’re helping your kid not to be. But for the moment, he definitely is. Do not under any circumstances seek his advice on operating or maintaining the Space Shuttle, or low-Earth-orbit spacewalks.

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