Talking to Babies for Dummies
June 30, 2019 1:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to find some "how to talk to babies for dummies" guidelines for new parents. In particular, the book Brain Rules for Babies mentions a specific set of guidelines given to parents by psychologist William Fowler. I'm curious what those were. Also, if anyone knows a really good resource for activities with ideas like "at 2 months, they should be learning to track noises with their eyes -- try moving a rattle back and forth to let them practice," I'd be really interested in that as well.

Note: I cribbed the italicized text from a Stack Exchange post by someone with a very similar question to mine.

From J. Medina's Brain Rules for Babies:
Educational psychologist William Fowler trained a group of parents to talk to their children in a particular fashion, following some of the guidelines mentioned above. The children spoke their first words between 7 and 9 months of age, some even speaking sentences at 10 months. They had conquered most of the basic rules of grammar by age 2, while the controls achieved a similar mastery around age 4. Longer-term studies showed that the kids did very well in school, including in math and science. By the time they entered high school, 62 percent of them were enrolled in gifted or accelerated programs. Critical parts of Fowler’s training program need further study, but his work is terrific. It adds to the overwhelming evidence that a whole lot of talking is like fertilizer for neurons.
The references are:

Fowler, W. “Accelerating Language Acquisition.” Ciba Found Symp 178 (1993): 207-17. (PubMed)

Fowler, W. Talking from Infancy: How to Nurture and Cultivate Early Language Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1990. (Amazon)

What were the actual guidelines given to parents? Is this book from 1990 really the latest and greatest? Are there other research-backed guidelines for talking to your baby? I'm naturally pretty quiet, so it would be nice to have some guidance about how much I should be talking.

Also, I'd love resources on other activities to do. My two-month-old is starting to be awake for longer periods of time, and I'm trying to figure out how much to let her just check things out on her own versus how much to actively engage her, and if so, doing what. Thanks!
posted by slidell to Science & Nature (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Babies develop differently, and at different paces. I wouldn't sweat the "at 2 months" thing.
What I would do, though, is read to her a lot.
posted by Calvin and the Duplicators at 2:12 AM on June 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

I recently saw an ad for a subscription service that sends developmentally appropriate toys and an evidence-based activity guide for infants-toddlers based on month of life. It's called Lovevery.

Forgot to mention: the contents on all the boxes are shown on the site, so even if you don't want to buy anything from them, you might get some good ideas!
posted by charmcityblues at 2:18 AM on June 30, 2019

I don't know this material, but I have a child with a speech delay and have read EVERYTHING about baby/toddler speech and had numerous speech therapists and I'd be absolutely shocked if there is some magical protocol that gets that kind of results that I haven't come across. Language acquisition is complex, and has a number of factors. But how much a baby is talked to matters way less than you would think.

One of my speech therapists said that she's seen kids who were stuck in front of the TV a lot and not particularly paid a lot of attention to who could speak in wonderful sentences at 2, and kids in upper middle class homes with all the best stimulation that couldn't say a word. Not that you shouldn't engage and communicate with your baby -- obviously that's important! do that! -- but that anything you deliberately do probably matters less than you think in terms of first words and things.

That said, I think the book Small Talk does give some good advice for parents who are just interested in communicating with their babies. Hanen's "It Takes Two To Talk" is also a great book.
posted by heavenknows at 2:54 AM on June 30, 2019 [10 favorites]

I really like Pathway's baby games calendar - you put in your baby's birthdate and week by week it suggests a few different ways to play with your baby that are appropriate given the expected milestones/capabilities/&c for that age. You don't have to sign up for their mailing list, if you want to just check in on that website once in a while instead.
posted by 168 at 2:58 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

There’s a chapter about language acquisition (from the description, likely debunking the study referenced in your book) in Emily Oster’s new book, Cribsheet: A Data-driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed, Parenting from Birth to Preschool.

I haven’t read it, but I loved her first book about pregnancy (Expecting Better). I’ll probably read Cribsheet even though my kid is now past the age range covered. It will be interesting to see which things I’ve been doing that are really more like old wive’s tales.
posted by Kriesa at 3:56 AM on June 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

RetroBaby is mostly focused on motor skills development, and has guidelines throughout, and suggested activities by age range.

And--I am a linguist, and not an speech language pathologist, but as far as I understand it, heavenknows is dead on. There's a ton of individual variation in how kids acquire language. There's also cultural variation in how you talk to kids, acceptability of "baby talk", etc. But, barring some neurological difference, despite this variation, kids acquire language naturally at roughly the same rate cross-cultures. It's something human babies are very good at (again, setting aside neurological difference).

For example, there's the ever-popular "word gap" study ("Poor babies hear X millions fewer words than rich babies, leading to problems in school") This study had some issues. For one, the gap might not have been as big as reported; for another, it valorized a particular type of parent-child interaction ("Should adults direct lots of questions to children in ways that prepare them to answer questions in school?" she asks, calling that a "middle-class, mostly white practice. [...] There are other values, like using language to entertain or connect, rather than just have children perform their knowledge. How do we honor different families rather than have families change their values to align with school?"). Kids were being labeled as verbally deficient based on a standard which very well may have been missing other aspects of linguistic development.

But, in general, most of the research and guidelines I've seen focus on exposing your baby to interactive language (so, not the TV, which is non-interactive). Read to her, narrate things as you're doing them, respond to her coos and babbling. Otherwise, there's space for variation for both you and baby.
posted by damayanti at 5:43 AM on June 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I don't know where this advice came from, but two suggestions stuck with me that I've passed on to multiple new parents: (1) Don't engage in babytalk — speak normally to and around babies and toddlers, so as not to misdirect their speech development. (2) Avoid talking about your toddler in their presence because they will start to understand you long before you think they do.
posted by beagle at 5:59 AM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I use the Baby Sparks app and really like it. It has activities across a range of skills (gross and fine motor, social, verbal, cognitive) and a daily set of activities for you to choose from. Each activity is like 5 mins max with minimal or no supplies needed. It’s based on your baby’s age and you can customise it by telling it if a certain activity is too easy or too hard for them at the moment. It is a paid app but you can try a reduced feature version for free. After that I think you can do either monthly sub or pay for a year or for lifetime (I think the activities go until the kid is 2?) I’ve found it useful for me to find things to do with my infant more so than anything else! I haven’t felt too much pressure if she couldn’t do certain things either, like I said you can tell the app something is too hard (and it will not suggest it again for 3 weeks) and it gives you enough suggestions for a day that you can pick and choose what works for you and your baby. I’ve recommended the app to loads of new parent friends.
posted by like_neon at 7:27 AM on June 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

Congrats! The AAP has a nice guide to child development milestones, and includes some suggestions for age-appropriate play. Most general baby websites (eg, Baby Center, The Bump, etc.) will also have some general guides to what baby should be up to at week/month X with suggestions for toys and games. Also, the Wonder Weeks has some interesting takes on baby development and suggestions for play (though their theory has, I believe, been debunked as it mostly came from a teeny observational data set, though I think the play is still appropriate, if the justification is a bit theoretical).
posted by stillmoving at 7:53 AM on June 30, 2019

I don't know where this advice came from, but two suggestions stuck with me that I've passed on to multiple new parents: (1) Don't engage in babytalk — speak normally to and around babies and toddlers, so as not to misdirect their speech development.

For what it's worth, I've heard the opposite - a lot of the elements of baby talk may help babies learn language. High pitch, drawn out vowels, echoing their babble as if it's a real conversation, all engage the baby and help them understand what talking is for and how it works. I don't think you have to *try* to talk babytalk or anything, but no need to curtail your natural way of speaking to babies or deliberately speak as if they're adults.
posted by Kriesa at 8:03 AM on June 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

If you want to get those language results (and be careful not to confuse 'talking' with language), I recommend American Sign Language (or BSL etc. depending on where you are). Babies can communicate much earlier (5-7 months) with signed languages, and can have a much more expansive expressive language earlier - which by 1 year will be a gift to you.
posted by Toddles at 8:13 AM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

a lot of the elements of baby talk may help babies learn language. High pitch, drawn out vowels, echoing their babble as if it's a real conversation, all engage the baby and help them understand what talking is for and how it works.

Agreed, but what I meant was not to deliberately mispronounce words, add vowels to them, etc. The occasional babble-back is not going to do any harm.
posted by beagle at 8:50 AM on June 30, 2019

Personally, I'm a baby hedonist: just about anything that makes baby smile and laugh is a fine thing to do.

If you can spare a small slice of your awareness to watch, the process of baby's acquiring language if fascinating. They are surprisingly methodical about it. The adopt a pronunciation (or mispronunciation) or a usage (or mis-usage) and use it for a while. They may know it's not perfectly correct, but they don't care because they are working on something else. Then one day, they'll adopt another, probably better habit and never go back.

It's pretty obvious that if no one ever speaks to them in regular speech, they never learn regular speech, but control of sounds come first. I understand that all new babies babble the same. Month by month, they stop babbling the sounds that other people don't make. So even baby talk cooing is a help.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:46 AM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Get the app the wonder weeks! It tells you where their development is at and suggests games. It’s great for my 2month old
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:57 PM on June 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Baby Sparks app. I just have the free version and it's been really useful. The tummy time variations alone have been amazing, and I can see how it's benefited my kiddo (who just rolled over at 15 weeks, sob!)
posted by nerdfish at 4:23 PM on June 30, 2019

Thanks! A ton of great ideas here! It's also helpful to hear that even after lots of reading, there's no silver bullet guidance that I should be following. I'll check out a lot of these apps and resources. Also if anyone else missed the apparently viral video damayanti posted, seriously go watch it. (Here's a different link if that one breaks).
posted by slidell at 9:11 PM on June 30, 2019

One other note, as a parent to a 2 month old also: personally I vary the amount of interaction vs downtime based on baby’s cues. If she’s cooing happily at some shadows on the wall, I am 0% going to interrupt that joy. But if she’s looking bored or fussing then it’s time for tummy time or bitsy spider / this lil piggy or some other interactive game. I talk a lot during diaper changes too (you’re focused on the business end but they’re watching You!). When she’s had too much, she looks away and that is my cue to back off (or worst case when there’s too much going on eg dad and brother are making some noise, then she starts to cry and I take her to another room to decompress). I was also going to mention that i do the back and forth talking (like in that ovary shattering video you’ve linked to) even at this age - if she looks puzzled, scared or whatever, I respond as though she’s said something and say appropriate words. I hope that helps! This is how I was with my (super verbal) son but as mentioned above it varies kid to kid so time will tell how this style impacts my daughter.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:04 PM on June 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here's the list of tips from the Brain Rules for the Baby book.

This is the original Fowler article, maybe you can get it from your library.

Here's a list of videos that are supposed to teach you (and the baby) "the Fowler method".

Personal opinion from a parent of a bilingual, talkative kid: Just talk to your baby. Don't talk *at* him/her. Pretend you understand their coos and babbles and keep a conversation going: "And what did you do?" - "gaaah booo?" - "Oh, you opened the door!" Keeping your voice a bit higher-pitched might help. But in the end, babies gonna baby, so don't fret too much.
posted by gakiko at 12:05 AM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

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