Speaking to Babies Can Literally Change Their Brain Structure

New research reveals benefits of early language exposure.

Speaking to Babies Can Literally Change Their Brain Structure | New research reveals benefits of early language exposure.

There are few milestones more satisfying and heartwarming than a baby's first words. But, long before babies start cooing “mama” and “dada,” and even before they’re able to engage in back-and-forth “conversations” with parents and caregivers, speaking to infants is associated with a host of neurological and developmental benefits. 

New research is uncovering evidence that babies exposed to lots of language actually have differences in brain structure than infants who hear less words. While the research is initial and not yet conclusive about how these structural differences affect long-term learning and socialization, it certainly demonstrates that spending time with babies, speaking to babies, and reading to babies may provide brain-boosting benefits that last long into adulthood.

Myelin sheathing
The study focused on the amount of myelin sheathing neurons in the language-processing areas of the brain, according to Science Alert. Myelin is an insulator that helps neurons transmit messages more efficiently.This is similar to the effect of duct tape wrapped around an old hose. The tape plugs the holes in the hose, boosting the water pressure that comes out of the end. Similarly myelin insulates the neurons, boosting their signal and efficiency.

Researchers gave babies and toddlers recording devices to wear for three days, according to The Guardian, allowing them to hear everything that the babies heard. Afterwards, they scanned their brains using an MRI. 

Professor John Spencer of the University of East Anglia, the lead author on the study, told The Guardian that they brought 84 of the babies to sleep overnight in the hospital. “Once the kids were asleep, we basically crept in like ninjas and lifted the child up and put them on to a trolley and transported them into the MRI scanning room,” he said.

The scan results showed that toddlers aged 30 months and up, who were exposed to more adult speech had more myelin in language-processing brain regions, suggesting a positive link between brain development and exposure to language.

Stages of development
However, the study uncovered an additional surprising result. Whereas toddlers exposed to adult language had more myelin, infants, around six-months old, who heard more speech had less myelin. 

That doesn’t mean that speaking to infants stunts brain development, Spencer cautioned. He suggested that the results were a product of differential brain growth at different ages. At six months, baby brains tended to focus on neuron growth, whereas at 30 months, brain development related more to connections and structure.

“When you’re six months old more input is good,” Spencer suggested. “But at that point, your brain is growing massively and you get this massive growth of new neurons. So the input comes in and may help prolong that period of brain growth.”

For now, the team agrees that more research is needed to see how the brains of these infants and toddlers continue to develop. Spencer explained, “The cool thing will be if the six-month-old kids who show that negative relationships turn into 30-month-old kids who show a positive relationship.” And that’s in addition to questions about the longer-term impact of myelin and neuron development in overall language and cognitive development.

The benefits of baby talk
Meanwhile, numerous studies in the past have toted the myriad benefits of speaking to and interacting with babies. According to Science Alert, early language exposure has also been associated with improved language processing, vocabulary, and grammar. Additionally, previous studies that imaged the language-processing areas of the brains of children ages 4-6 found a positive connection between language exposure and myelination for older preschoolers.

Research from 2014 found that speaking “parentese” to babies could help infants to speak and babble sooner and develop vocabulary faster. “Parentese” is the half-sensible, lilting, garbled speech that some parents naturally use with infants, for example, “Wittle ba-bee wants her ba-ba (bottle).” 

How to speak to babies
There is so much research backing up the benefits of interacting with little ones. But, despite the benefits, it can feel uncomfortable for parents to try and engage a speech partner who is too little to engage them back. It’s hard to know if babies are taking in what parents are saying to them. The Bump shares suggestions for starting a conversation with infants.

One easy way to expose babies to language is to read them books. Another suggestion is to label items around the house. Narrating the steps of a diaper change or a bottle prep, in “parentese” or in normal adult speech, can give infants that vital early-language exposure.

In addition to talking to babies, parents can talk with babies, encouraging conversation-style back-and-forths. If a baby isn’t speaking or babbling yet, parents can incorporate their movements and grunts into the conversation. For example, adults can speak to their babies, wait for the baby to move and then respond, “Wow! You just moved your arm.”

Early Childhood Speech Development expert and professor of psychology at Temple University, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek explains that the most important thing is to give babies a chance to and make conversations a back-and-forth. “Contribute as much as baby is, and have them contribute as much as you are. Don’t take over—that way it’s a duet, not a solo,” she explains. 

Child development experts agree that “parentese,” exposure to adult speech, narration, and, of course, lots of warm positive interactions with babies can absolutely aid in their language and brain development. Professor Spencer sums it up, telling The Guardian, “I think the take-home message is, absolutely talk to your kids. And it matters. What’s pretty striking here is that it’s literally shaping the structure of the brain.” 

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