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Child Health Watch: Communicating is key to infant development

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The 100 billion brain cells we are born with have a lot to get right in the first few months of life.
Imagine each individual in a population 15 times that of the planet earth all migrating to a specific location to make proper connections and communicate with others in a way that makes sense for the population as a whole.
About once a day a baby is born in Los Alamos and although his brain has these amazing 100 billion neurons formed and in place, the way they connect and develop is influenced by their experience with adults and their environment.
Most babies learn language from hearing it, so talking to your newborn is the key. Even before birth, a baby hears and knows the rhythms and tones of his mother’s voice.
As a newborn, he is especially sensitive to the sound of human speech and becomes very interested in the basic speech sounds of language.
At birth babies can perceive many more speech sounds than adults do; too many, in fact. The more we talk to our infants the better they become at focusing only on the sounds of our native language, so that the experience of hearing speech sounds strengthens some specific neural pathways and not others.
This is where it is vital to talk to your newborn. Even if he does not understand what you are saying, your speech helps his brain develop the connections necessary to fine tune his hearing in ways that will set the stage for language development.
Clearly not all language is spoken. Try to find those spontaneous face-to-face times like diaper changes to talk to her as well, so that she can see you smile and raise your eyebrows as you communicate. You might notice yourself speaking with soft, often higher pitched and clearly enunciated speech (please, not the “goo-goo baby talk.”) Soon she will be mimicking you and you her. Pretend that your infant is “telling” you something with those coos and gurgles (not unlike you might pretend your teen is “telling” you something, too) and answer and expand on what she says.
One of the first conversations I had with my son happened as we gave each other raspberries back and forth. In this way he knew I heard him and he was able to begin to practice the turn-taking pattern of language and communicating with others.
Talk, sing, tell stories and read to your baby and no, it is never too early to read to an infant. I personally feel that singing to your baby is especially wonderful and remember, your child will love you even if you are not Justin Bieber.
You can also simply talk about what is happening around them. For example, as you are driving with your infant in the back in a rear-facing car seat he will pay attention to the pattern of speech sounds as you casually describe your sentiments on all this bloody road construction.
Be careful not to plan for your infant to “learn to talk.” There is no research to indicate that flashcards promote a baby’s brain development and they are simply probably too boring.
Your voice and interactions will create an environment where your infant will understand the connection between sounds and words.
There is research to suggest a link, however, between verbal intelligence and the number of words a baby hears in the first two years. Be careful not to overdo it and be aware of cues when your baby is receptive or not. If she turns her head away it may be time to take a break.
Enjoy yourself and remember to smile with your voice and your eyes.

Dr. Tom Csanadi
Child and Adolescent Medicine
Los Alamos