As they grow and develop, babies and toddlers are like little sponges that soak up stimuli and information around them. As they do, their brains try to make sense of it all to give meaning and relevance to what the child sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes. When a child is in physical contact with something that stimulates their senses, the connection between cause and effect is at its most obvious. However, when it comes to physically unconnected signals like sound and less tangible things like information, making sense of them can be more difficult as there may be less context for the child to work on. It’s logical, therefore, that interactive help from parents and caregivers is going to help little ones process and put meaning to such inbound data. With help from an adult, the streams of sound and information can be given context and relevance that might otherwise not have been attainable. What’s more, a new study at the University of East Anglia has now confirmed the link between talking with infants and physical changes within their developing brains. Put simply, talking with your infant shapes their brain, quite literally. Let’s take a look at the study.
The study was undertaken by a team led by John Spencer, Professor in Psychology at the University of East Anglia (UEA). The team analysed the effect of talking on the brains of 163 infants who were enrolled in the study. Over 6,200 hours of audio were recorded via specially designed vests worn by the children, who were aged either 6 months or 30 months. After active talking with the children, their brains were scanned for approximately 40 minutes each, while asleep, using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner.
Researchers were looking out for one specific thing; a change to the amount of a chemical called myelin in the parts of the brain associated with the processing of language. The presence of myelin around nerve cells in the brain is known to improve the efficiency of communication between cells. The study was therefore designed to see if the level of myelin increased when children were exposed to language. If so, it would suggest that their ability to process language would be improved simply because the infants were spoken to.
The Findings: How Talking to Your Child Affects its Brain
The findings were very clear; children aged 30 months (2½ years old) who had been regularly spoken to by adults during the test period were found to have increased amounts of myelin in areas of the brain associated with language processing. Interestingly, the increase in levels of myelin was not found in other areas of the brain, suggesting it was increased purely to help the child process language. Quite a finding!
“So talking to your child literally shapes their brain.” (John Spencer, Professor in Psychology, UEA)
Although myelin was not found to increase in 6-month-olds in the study, it is thought that this may be because the brain is rapidly increasing in size during that period. The researchers nonetheless believe that it’s good to talk to your infant even when they’re tiny.
By the age of 3, an infant’s brain will have developed to over four-fifths of its adult size.
Overall, research suggests that infants and toddlers see the greatest benefit when adults talk directly to them, not simply around them. Clearly, the child is getting something from the direct interaction and many verbally-active parents will concur with this. The quantity of being spoken to is apparently important at this young age. Talking to the infant and explaining what you’re talking about will also help them make sense of what you’re saying (e.g. pointing to a ball that you’ve mentioned). Repetition helps. Later on, when children are a little older, quality may be more important, particularly as ‘conversations’ will be taking place between adult and child by that stage.
A baby’s brain forms more than a million new connections every second when you interact with them.
The professor talks about contingent conversations being recommended. This is rather akin to the serve-and-return approach espoused by a separate Harvard study that we reported on via our sister nursery in Streatham back in 2021. In each case, the idea is to take the lead from the infant and pick up on something they’ve already expressed an interest in. In this way, they already have strong attention. If they grab a ball, for example, say, ‘ball’. When they’re a little older and more advanced, you might say, ‘blue ball’ instead. Gradually they will get the idea, even if they don’t appear to understand at first. You can gradually expand the vocabulary as time moves on (e.g. ‘roll the blue ball to Mummy’) and this is an example of improving the quality of the interactions. What you are doing is laying the foundations of the child’s language abilities and, by interacting, you are also making learning fun for the child — classic learning through play. Learn more from the author of the study here.
“It might feel a bit odd to chatter on and on to a six-month-old – clearly, they don’t understand everything you are saying. But gradually, hour by hour and day by day, it all adds up. All that chatter matters.” (John Spencer, Professor in Psychology, UEA)
Leaps & Bounds Nursery: Officially a Good Provider in Edgbaston, Birmingham
We hope that this article and our wide variety of guides, articles and posts about childcare, parenting and early years are of interest to parents and caregivers.
Ofsted rates Leaps & Bounds officially as a Good Provider of childcare and early years education for babies and children under five, so your little one is in good hands in a loving, caring and nurturing environment here. So, if you are looking for a good nursery or preschool close to Edgbaston or Birmingham, take a closer look at Leaps & Bounds. As well as being high quality as a provider, we support all Government-funded childcare schemes, making weekday childcare more affordable for eligible families. Let us show you/your child around and we can answer questions and show you how well your child would fit in at the setting. Choose a button below to get in touch or to go right ahead and apply for a nursery/preschool place.
Leaps & Bounds Day Nursery and Preschool is located in Edgbaston, near Birmingham. We would also suit those requiring high-quality childcare for under-fives near Ladywood, Bearwood, Harborne and Smethwick.