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March 25th, 2010
05:23 PM ET

Experts: Talking to your baby can build language skills

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

If you're the parent of an infant, chances are you're doing a lot of cooing to communicate with your child. But instead of just making sounds, child psychologists say, you may want to actually talk to your baby while you identify objects.

Researchers at Northwestern University have found that even before your little one begins to speak, words play an important role in your child's comprehension and communication.

The research, which was compiled by the psychology department in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, was published in the most recent issue of the journal Child Development. Participants included 46 infants, from 2 to 4 months of age. Half of the infants were assigned to a word group. The remaining infants were in the tone group. In the study, the babies were shown a series of pictures of fish that were paired with words or beeps. Infants in the word groups were told things such as "Look at the toma!" - a made up word for fish, as the babies looked at each picture. In the other group, infants heard a series of beeps instead of words as they looked at the pictures. Then both groups were shown a picture of a different fish and a dinosaur side by side as the researcher measured how long each child looked at the pictures.

The study authors said the results were striking. They found that although babies in both groups saw exactly the same picture for exactly the same amount of time, those who heard the words later identified other fish, by looking at them longer and therefore mentally categorizing them. Those who heard tones did not.

"For infants as young as 3 months of age, words exert a special influence that supports the ability to form a category," said Susan Hespos, associate professor of psychology and one of the authors of the study. “These findings offer the earliest evidence to date for a link between words and object categories."

The study investigators suspect that human speech, directed to infants actually helps them to become more aware of their surroundings and makes it easier for them to recognize and categorize objects that are brought to their attention. And while babies continue to grow and learn words, talking to them and identifying objects will help them distinguish individual words and their meanings, which makes it easier for children to learn to talk and eventually communicate.

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Filed under: Caregiving • Children's Health • Parenting

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