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'Mother's Milk' for the Baby's Brain

New parents are advised to talk to their baby as a way to boost language growth. Reading books out loud and “narrating your day” are ways to do this. Now, I-LABS brain research has revealed why talking to babies is so important.

In one of Discover magazine’s top science findings of 2014, I-LABS scientists reported that months before babies utter their first words, their brains rehearse the motor actions that go into producing speech.

This means that while your baby may not be able to talk back to you just yet, her brain is making sense of your speech and building toward being ready to speak herself.

Using the I-LABS MEG facility, Kuhl and her co-authors measured brain responses to language sounds in nearly 60 7-, 11- and 12-month-old babies. Those brain recordings showed that in the 7-month-old babies, language sounds activated the motor-planning regions of the cerebellum and cortex, revealing that the babies were perceiving and processing sounds in both their native language (English) and non-native language (Spanish).

But at 11 to 12 months of age, the babies’ brains only had increased motor activity to the non-native speech sounds (in this case, Spanish). The I-LABS researchers, who published the discovery in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, interpreted this as showing that it takes more effort for the baby brain to predict and understand which motor movements produce non-native speech by that age.

How can you use this finding to help your baby learn to talk? Try using the style of speech called “parentese,” in which you exaggerate and draw out the sounds of words. When you slowly say, “Looook at your be-yoo-ti-ful eeeeyes!” we give baby a chance to follow along. And as the MEG brain findings show, the baby brain can rehearse those speech mechanics to prepare for making those speech sounds for herself.

How vital is parentese? Kuhl often calls it “mother’s milk for the baby brain.”

In another recent study, Kuhl and colleagues found that the more parents spoke in parentese in one-on-one exchanges, the more their babies babbled. And then when the children were followed up a year later, when the kids were 2 years old, children in families who spoke the most parentese knew 433 words on average, compared with the 169 words in children from families who used the least parentese.

So it’s not just quantity, but the quality of language that baby hears that makes such a difference.



About the Author

This article was adapted from a longer piece by Molly McElroy, Ph.D., How does baby learn? in the March 2016 Columns alumni magazine. Molly is a neuroscientist and a mom to a toddler. She is the communications and marketing manager at I-LABS. Follow her on Twitter: @mwmcelroy.

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