Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have a two-week-old baby and I’ve noticed that many new parents seem to spend a lot of time talking to their babies. That looks and sounds kind of cute, but I honestly don’t see the point since the kids can’t understand a word of what people are saying. On the few times I do talk to the baby, he ignores me anyway. How important is it to talk to the baby? And if it is important, what should I talk about?
I get your frustration. But even though your baby seems to be ignoring you (he’s actually not) and isn’t capable of engaging in witty conversation, speaking to him is incredibly important. During your baby’s first three years, his brain is growing at an incredible clip and the kind of stimulation he gets now will have a huge influence on how successful he is later in life. One of the best – and easiest – ways to stimulate his brain development is to talk to him.
Researchers Todd Risley and Betsy Hart found a direct correlation between the number of words a child hears before age three and his IQ. Kids with the most talkative parents also do better on tests of reading readiness. As you can imagine, the larger a child’s vocabulary, the easier it will be for him to read – and the more you talk to (and read to) your baby now, the larger his vocabulary will be.
Since you have a boy, this is especially important. Parents (especially mothers) tend to talk more to girls than to boys. All that extra conversation may explain why girls generally do better in school. Right now, what you talk about isn’t as important as how. Here are a few steps to get you started.
▪ Expand and encourage. If your baby says “ba-ba,” take that as a conversation starter and respond with a full sentence, something like, “do you want your bottle?” or “yes, that’s a sheep,” depending on what you think he means. By responding this way, you’re showing your baby that you’re interested in what he has to “say,” and you’re encouraging him to say even more.
▪ Identify. Ask, “Where’s your tummy?” If he points to it or pats it, praise him and ask another question. If he doesn’t answer, point it out for him (“here’s your tummy!”) and ask another.
▪ Talk about differences. Point to your nose, then point to his, and then to a picture of an elephant’s trunk. Tell him about how his is smaller and yours and the elephant’s are bigger. No, he won’t understand, but that’s not the point. What’s important is that he’s hearing your voice and is getting to know the rhythm of the language.
▪ Explain everything. If you’re feeding him, talk about the food, the color, the taste, how messy his face is. If you’re outside, talk about the traffic, weather, trees, construction sites, and everything else you come in contact with during the day. They’re all familiar to you, but to your baby, it’s all brand new.
▪ Keep “No” and “Don’t” to a minimum. It’s incredibly hard, but try. First of all, they’re very broad. If you say “No” or “Don’t” to your baby he may not understand exactly what you don’t want him to do. All he really knows is that you’re not happy. And too many Nos and Don’ts will discourage creativity and exploration. Instead, give him some details. “Knives are sharp and they aren’t for babies,” or “It’s not safe to try to put mommy’s hair pins in the electrical outlets.” Of course all your outlets are safely covered up, but you know what I mean.
Read. Make stories and books part of your baby’s daily routine. We’ll talk more about this in future columns.
Armin Brott is the author of “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be.”