As parents, we have so much to think about, worry about, and learn. We are bombarded with information from news, research, and social media that can be overwhelming and confusing. It sometimes makes us wonder if we’re doing too much or not enough in our mission to raise healthy, happy kids.
So isn’t it great when you get a big thumbs-up for something you’re already doing as a parent?
You’ve talked to your baby in a funny voice, right? You’ve also stretched words out and carefully articulated them to help your baby understand and learn them. You’ve probably even exaggerated the tone of your voice to show different emotions through your words.
New research out of the University of Washington confirms that you are on the right track! The study, from UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS), shows that it’s important not only thatyou talk to your baby but howyou talk to your baby.
It seems that this use of “parentese” has a powerful impact on infants. More than just baby-talk, parentese is grammatical language using real words and accentuated tones of voice that “helps babies tune in socially to their parents and motivates them to talk back, even if that just means babbling,” according to an article about the study on University of Washington News.
The research shows that babies who are exposed to this type of speech develop strong language skills themselves. When parents participating in the study were coached in using parentese, their children learned to talk earlier and with a larger vocabulary than babies whose parents did not speak this way.
The lead author of the study, Ferjan Ramírez, explained that parents can communicate with their children in this way to enhance language learning throughout their usual activities: “Everyday moments and daily interactions really matter, and parents can create more such moments and be more intentional about them.” Ramírez added:
Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers, and we are happy to show they can have an immediate positive effect on the growth of their child’s language. Early language skills are important predictors of a child’s learning to read and of their success in school, and parents can directly affect their child’s outcomes in this way.
Supercharge your parentese: read aloud!
If you’ve looked around The Reading Womb a bit, you’ll be aware of the explosion of research and advice about early literacy—reading to children right from birth—that’s become available to parents in recent years. This practice, advocates say, stimulates early brain development and helps build important language, literacy, and social skills. Sound familiar?
Well, just like parentese, reading aloud is something that many new parents have to learn. After all, most adults haven’t read aloud since they were kids themselves! Fortunately, you have so many great teachers to turn to.
Jim Trelease, author of the long-bestselling Read Aloud Handbook, created a list of “Do’s and Don’ts for Read Alouds.” Right in line with the findings on parentese, Trelease suggests, for instance, that parents use plenty of expression when reading.You can use your voice to reflect the meaning of the text: a soft voice for gentle characters and touching scenes, a loud voice to show strong emotion or to emphasize drama and excitement. Also, adjust your pace to fit the story: read slowly to bring attention to beautiful language and imagery, and more quickly to show movement and action.
When it comes to enriching the vocabulary you use with your baby, beloved children’s author and early literacy advocate Mem Fox says in her amazing book Reading Magic, “If children love the words they hear, they’ll use them delightfully in their own speaking and in their own writing. If they love the sounds of the words, they’ll understand them better when they come to read them later. That’s another terrific benefit of reading aloud: familiar words—words heard often previously—are always easier to read than unfamiliar words.”
And as Sarah McKenzie says in her book (and entire platform!) The Read-Aloud Family, “When we read aloud, we give our kids a storehouse filled with excellent vocabulary and highly sophisticated language patterns. We offer them practice at making connections and thinking well. And best of all, we help them fall in love with reading—an affection that will serve them well their entire lives.”
Reading aloud to your baby can be the perfect way to practice using expressive language in all your communication with your child.
The perfect time to learn
So, if it takes some practice to develop a comfort level with reading aloud and speaking parentese, what better time to start than before your baby is born? In the final weeks before baby arrives, her ears are already fully developed and her brain is able to discern varying speech patterns. This time of expectation, before your life changes so dramatically, is the perfect time to get used to reciting bouncy Dr. Seuss rhythms and silly Sandra Boynton rhymes. By the time your baby is born, you’ll already be fluent in parentese!
This is also the time to make bedtime stories a nightly routine that you’ll look forward to as much as your new baby will. After a period of practicing reading to your baby in utero, you’ll fall into a storytime routine that’s comfortingly familiar—even to baby, who’s been listening avidly from inside the womb—and it will become a cherished family ritual with lifelong rewards.
All the benefits of reading aloud to children and babies, combined with the wealth of scientific support for reading to babies in the womb (check out the links on our Research & Information page), make it abundantly clear that it’s never too early to read to your baby!
Remember, you are your baby’s first and most important teacher. By modeling enthusiastic and expressive speech, you are setting an example for your child’s own language development—before birth and after!