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Beyond Baby Talk

Partnership between PEPS and Seattle Children's gives new parents tools to help with early language and speech development

Reading with your baby
Seattle Children's Speech-Language Pathologist Brenda Ray reads with a toddler

Seattle Children's Spirit of PEPS Winners
Spirit of PEPS honorees from Seattle Children's

By Shawna Gamache

We all know about the importance of reading to young babies and children, but are we doing it right?

At a recent Baby Peppers meeting in the Central District, a group of parents learned that even the way you hold a baby while reading can make a difference in their early speech and language development.

Wendy Bell, a speech-language pathologist with Seattle Children's Speech and Language Services, showed the group how to situate the babies, the books and themselves in a triangular arrangement. The position, Bell said, allows babies to see the book and watch their parents' faces as they form words. It also lets parents see which parts of the page catch baby's eye, and customize their conversation to fit baby's focus.

"It was the first time I'd heard that," said group leader Heather Ring, a mother of three. "That was a big 'Aha!' moment for us."

Bell coordinates a volunteer program at Seattle Children's that brings about eight speech and language experts like herself to PEPS Groups to talk to new parents and their babies. The Seattle Children's Speech and Language Services is a winner of the 2012 Spirit of PEPS Award, given to volunteers who provide outstanding service to PEPS.

"They visit more PEPS groups than any other speakers, and have, over seven-plus years, informed, engaged, and reassured thousands of new parents about their children’s development," said PEPS Executive Director LB Kussick.

Bell said she loves "spreading the news" to local families about the value of the way they play, read and interact with their babies, and directing them to evidence-based research. But she also loves meeting babies and new parents.

"I love to just celebrate it with them," said Bell, a mother of 10-year-old twins. "I just love that it's a whole new little being."

Rather than give a set lecture, volunteers ask parents about their own interests and questions, and discuss recent research in their areas of interest.

"I could talk for hours about speech and language, but I really want it to be relevant to" each group, Bell said.

The most common questions, Bell said, are usually about bilingual households and media use.

Bell tells families that speaking a second or third language with babies and young children is incredibly beneficial to early development. She emphasizes the importance of also writing and reading in that language.

As for screen time, Bell said the first few years of a child's life should be spent talking and playing instead.

From age two to three, there can be some benefit to watching small vignettes of about five minutes or so. Bell said children of that age can grasp a story arc of that length; and identify a main character, what they're trying to do, and what they accomplish by the end of a story.

But Bell emphasizes that shows need to be short and paced appropriately for such a young age. She said it's important that parents watch what their kids watch.

She is also asked about toddlers and kids playing on a tablet or smart phone.

"There hasn't been enough research to say it's terrible, but you are taking away time that could be creative if you're replacing it with something that is scripted," Bell said.

She said if young children do use the devices, the more unscripted apps or games –– where they have unlimited options rather than just clicking on a choice or swiping to turn a page–– are best. Like using a paint or drawing program. She said parents often tell her that their kids are playing games that they might play in real life, like Memory, for example. But she said playing a game of Memory against your mom is very different than playing one on the iPad.

"There are so many rich experiences you're losing by playing against a machine," she said.

Bell said she knows that new parents are often exhausted and overwhelmed and can't weed through all the information out there.

"The baby ages are really hard because there is a lot of manual labor, Bell said. "I love telling parents about the really important things they might miss because they haven't read the research."

She said knowing the research gives new parents confidence in everyday interactions with their children. It may also help them to identify any red flags early.

"When parents feel like they understand language development, they feel more confident, and when they feel more confident, then they provide a better model," she said. "Bringing something like that to the forefront so early on through PEPS is really important for that reason."

Bell wants parents to enjoy reading and playing with their wee ones, rather than feeling pressured to quiz young kids about letters or numbers.

"I just want to stress that those things will come," Bell said. "Talking and visiting and laughing and singing, all of those things are more important than flash cards."

Speech-Language Pathologist Wendy Bell said PEPS groups are also often curious about which books are best for babies of different ages.

Here's what she tells them to read during active times of the day (not right before bedtime or nap time):

  • For babies of about six months, photographic picture books, especially those that feature baby faces.
  • For babies of eight to ten months, choose picture books with few words that let parents talk about whatever they want, and customize the storytelling based on baby's interest or focus. Think books by Helen Oxenbury like "I Can," "I See" and "I Touch."
  • For babies of ten to 12 months, picture flap books like "Who Says Moo?" and the Spot books are great for interactive reading
  • For babies of around a year, pick books that feature a rhyme scheme in a sentence by sentence construction. Think Sandra Boynton books.
  • At bedtime, choose a book that is not as exciting, and something the parent enjoys reading. Younger babies especially just need to hear the cadence of mom or dad's voice.

About the Author

Shawna GamacheShawna Gamache is a former newspaper reporter and co-founder of the local blog Moms Alive. She is mama to Ruby (2) and Quinn (3). Her PEPS group still meets every other week.

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