There may be a stereotype that women talk more than men; the language environment in which we’re raised, starting at day one, may have influence on this. Whether or not women are chattier than men is due largely in part to the context of the conversation. But a new study published in Pediatrics shows when it comes to parents talking to their babies, the term “Chatty Cathy” probably rings truer than “Chatty Carl.” And this has the potential to change the game with your child as they age. It’s well founded that the number of words your baby/child hears in the first few years of life has dramatic impact on their vocabulary, school success and education for a lifetime. Parent-talk has more impact on a child’s IQ and vocabulary than their education or socioeconomic status. Who we are as talkers really changes our babies’ lives.
Gender Differences In “Baby-Talk” And “Parent-Talk”
The Pediatrics study out this week evaluated the intersection of both baby-talk (comparing preterm and term baby boys and girls vocalizations for 16 hours at a time) and parent-talk (comparing Moms’ to Dads’ vocalizations to their infants) at birth, at about a month of age (based on original due date), and at 7 months of age. More than 1500 hours of recordings (derived from little devices worn on babies’ vests) were analyzed to compare family language interactions. Babies in families with a Mom and Dad at home were included (no same-sex couples). About ½ of the babies were late preemies (note: 1/4 of all the babies studied had a stay in the NICU) and 1/3 of families were raising children in a bilingual home. I found three key takeaways:
- Moms And Dads Differ: When it comes to chatting with their babies, women are much more vocal than men. And, although this sounds loaded with stereotypes, what researchers found most notable was how big the gap was between how moms and dads talked with their babies, even calling this difference “striking.” In the study babies were found to, on average, “…receive nearly 3 times as much language input from their mothers than their fathers from birth through 7 months of age.” Further, researchers evaluated how babies responded to language from their moms versus their dads in “language blocks,” basically back-and-forth dialogues. They found infants preferentially responded to mothers during newborn, 1 month and 7 months of age when compared to their fathers.
- Baby Girls And Baby Boys: Women were found to be more receptive to “baby talk” – those screams, gurgles and gibberish that comes out before infants learn words compared to men. Men do tend to talk more when their baby boy is the one initiating conversation compared to a baby girl, where as moms spoke more to girls than to their baby boys. Same-gender infant-parent pairs seem to have some synergy. The difference here was large as well: men respond to baby-talk between 20%-30% of the time , compared to women responding about 90% of the time. Of note, researchers also found that babies had relatively few interactions with their fathers that were independent or apart from their moms, meaning often when dads are talking to their infants the moms are present and nearby.
- Engagement matters: infants’ total exposure to parent-talk increased from birth to 7 months of age, presumably because as babies mature they become more engaging and we talk with them more and more…
Change Ways We Interact With Babies?
Should we change the way we talk with our infants? Possibly.
Talking with your baby is an example where more really may be better. Researchers do assert that a significant gap in language from fathers can have long-term implications, highlighting previous research that found fathers’ language input can predict a child’s language outcome.
Bottom line is that babies’ early language exposure is essential for learning, literacy, language development, and social-emotional interactions for a lifetime. Parent-talk, from day one, is important part of a baby’s everyday development. This new study illuminates differences between our interactions – moms may talk to their babies more than dads and parental talk may differ based on the gender of the baby (i.e. girls get spoken to more than boys). All sorts of reminders here that communicating, laughing, singing, and involving our children in our verbal lives from day one remains a huge priority. No matter if you’re a mom or a dad, we are each essential.
Further studies necessitate we look at all types of family units, including same-sex couples raising children to increase understanding and tease out some of the nuance and cultural contexts around how our babies learn and how we divvy up the talking inside the walls of our homes.
5 Rs: Everyday Early Education For Children, Starting At Birth
- Read together as a daily, fun, family activity.
- Rhyme, play, talk, sing, and cuddle together often throughout the day.
- Build Routines for meals, play, and sleep, which help children know what to expect and what is expected of them.
- Give Rewards for everyday successes (especially for effort toward goals like helping), understanding that praise from those closest to a child is a very potent reward.
- Develop Relationships that are nurturing, reciprocal, purposeful and lasting, which are the foundations of healthy early brain and child development.
Did the study disclose if the parents worked outside of the home (vs stay at home parents or work from home parents)? Just curious if they factored this in, particularly for the fathers…
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Great question. The researchers only studied parents with babies when both parents were at home and present for the duration of the recordings. But they didn’t tease out who (mom vs dad) was primarily at home with infant during those months (ie stay at home mom versus stay at home dad, versus dual working parents etc).