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The BabyTalk program takes just half an hour of playtime a day. It is simple, stress-free, and can be easily followed by any parent, caregiver or childcare professional. Best of all, it's a lot of fun!
The BabyTalk program:
Optimizes children's language development Enhances children's ability to concentrate and learn Enriches children's imaginative play Maximizes children's potential intelligence
The newborn baby arrives totally helpless and dependent, but nonetheless amazingly well equipped in a number of ways to interact with the adults around him. He shows an emotional inclination toward people from the very start of life and soon engages them in the communication process.
He recognizes his mother’s and father’s voices on his very first day,1 from how they sounded while he was in the womb. He also will respond to a television or radio show that has been frequently played in his vicinity!2 (He has in fact been hearing for the past two months, as the auditory system is functional from the seventh month of pregnancy.) The newborn’s hearing is not yet as sensitive as that of adults;3 he shows a reflex turning toward low quiet sounds, which will later be lost.
Within days, he can distinguish recordings of his own cries from those of other babies and can discriminate between the sound of a real baby crying and a computer simulation, crying harder in response to the former. At this stage too, he shows a preference for speech that is high-pitched and very tuneful, with lots of rises and falls.4, 5 By the age of one month, he is showing interest in listening to a wide range of sounds and will “fixate” on one sound for some time. An extraordinary feature at this stage is that by the age of four weeks, he can distinguish between phonemes, which are the smallest units in the language to signal meaning. This means, for example, that he knows there are two different sounds when he hears the words “pat” and “bat” spoken, although the difference is only a tiny one.6 By two months, babies can even discriminate male from female voices. It is tempting to conclude that the infant arrives closely attuned to speech, but it is also possible that speech is suited to the innate characteristics of the human condition.
At the same time he is exploring sound, the new baby shows a parallel interest in people. Faces engage his attention, having many of the qualities that he finds most attractive—movement, three dimensions rather than two, contrast between dark and light, and curved lines.7, 8, 9 By the age of only thirty-six hours, he already shows a preference for watching a video of his mother’s face over one of a stranger, demonstrating amazingly rapid learning.10 He also prefers to watch the movements made by people rather than those made by animals or inanimate objects.11 The newborn baby has an extraordinary ability—lost a few weeks later—of imitating tongue protrusion and mouth opening.12 He can also imitate facial expressions of sadness, happiness, and surprise.13, 14, 15 Nobody quite knows why these abilities exist at this time, or why they disappear.
In the early weeks, the baby cries and produces other vocalizations like hiccups and burps, all related to his bodily functions. Although these sounds are not used to communicate intentionally at this stage, the adults around him respond to his noises, paving the way for true interaction a little later. The baby learns that different behaviors receive different responses. For example, he cries and fusses, and his mother says, “Oh, you want your diaper changed,” or he looks toward a toy and she says, “You want to see teddy,” as she brings it toward him.
The magical first smile is seen at about six weeks. It is an extremely powerful stimulus to the adults around him, who are prepared to do almost anything up to and including standing on their heads to evoke one! At this stage, the amount he vocalizes and the frequency with which his facial expressions change does not differ according to whether or not he is looking at an adult. He will smile to a range of stimuli, and not only at people.16 He may now start an interaction sequence with an adult by catching his eye and conclude it by looking away. Cooing emerges at this time, usually signaling that he is contented.
From the age of eight weeks, the baby’s gaze and the little sounds he makes are more frequently directed at adults, and by twelve weeks, he shows a very well established preference for people rather than any other stimulus in his environment. He vocalizes much more to them than to anything else and most of all to his mother.17 He is now, for the first time, responsive to his mother’s facial expressions and tone of voice and can change his own facial expressions. He is more inclined to smile at familiar adults than at strangers.
Over the period of the first three months, babies develop the capacity to produce more and more complex sounds, starting with the vague vowel-like squeaks of the newborn to the more complex expressions of pleasure and occasional vocalizations of two or more different syllables. By three months, he produces the most delightful laughter and will now respond to a smile by smiling back. (Please remember, though, that babies do develop at different rates, and that in the early stages, even whether he was born a week early or late makes a difference.)
In the first three months, social interaction typically occurs between infant and adult, without other objects or events serving as a focus of the interaction. This will be one of the big changes to come in the baby’s continued development.
Language and General Development
THE FIRST MONTH
Soon after birth, the baby shows his responsiveness to the adults around him. When he is fussy or crying, he can be quieted by being spoken to, by being picked up, and by eye contact. Nature has arranged things so that he focuses best at the distance he is from his mother’s face when he is in her arms.18 He already shows interest in listening, ceasing his activity as a sound comes nearer. By the end of the first month he will fixate on a nearby sound. He cries frequently, but soon starts to produce some vowel sounds other than crying. His noises are not in any way communicative at this stage, but rather reflect his bodily state. He clearly signals his degree of alertness and comfort with the presence or absence of crying or fussing and will actively seek eye contact with adults.
In terms of general development, he is beginning to make rudimentary attempts to explore his world.19 He will turn his head toward a light, and although he has no binocular vision as yet, he already perceives that size and shape are constant even though objects are seen from different angles and distances. He can, at this very early stage, discriminate between a cross, a circle, and a triangle.20
He has very little control over his body, using jerky and involuntary movements. As is the case in all vertebrates, the general direction of behavioral organization is from head to foot, so that he can hold his head steady for a few seconds if he is supported at the shoulders, but has little control over his legs. He shows some reflex behaviors that will become increasingly purposeful—for example, clenching his hand on contact with a rattle. He shows a complete and coordinated, albeit temporary, walking reflex when he is held upright.
THE SECOND MONTH
In this period, the baby is showing more and more interest in both his environment in general and people in particular. He now often turns his head and looks in the direction of voices and appears to listen intently to anyone speaking. He seems to respond to tone of voice, and by the middle of this month will sometimes smile when he is spoken to. His “voice” is also developing. Cooing emerges during this month. Cooing is quieter and more musical than crying and can be heard when he is content. It consists of a consonant-type sound followed by a vowel-type sound, with occasional repetition. At this stage, the baby may develop special vocalizations signaling hunger, which is the first time his sound has a particular meaning. He will now demand attention by vocal fussing.
He has longer and more defined waking periods. His motor development is dominated by the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex, in which his head is averted to the preferred side, with the arm on that side extended and the opposite one flexed. This position limits his visual field, but his control over his eye muscles is strengthening. He can now turn his head toward a rattle or light and visually follow a moving object, first horizontally and then vertically. He is able to watch a play activity and will sometimes fixate on an object for a long time. His head control is also increasing as he can now lift it when he is lying on his tummy. His developing muscles can be seen at work during his vigorous kicking in the bath.
THE THIRD MONTH
The baby is now showing rapidly increasing interest in speech and regularly looks around for, and successfully locates, speakers. He can differentiate between angry and friendly voices. He tends to watch the lips and mouth rather than the whole face, as if he realizes that that is where these very interesting sounds come from. He shows increasing interest in sounds of all kinds, searching for them persistently with his eyes. He will look, for example, for an opening door, the clatter of cutlery, and the sounds associated with housework. He quiets down to listen to music. He loves it all, pop and classical, but at this stage prefers it to be quiet rather than loud. Best of all is the sound of his mother singing to him.
His sound-making is also developing, in both quantity and quality. He makes noises to himself, occasionally now with two or more different syllables containing a consonant and a vowel, and can be heard to string ten or more little sounds together. He will sometimes produce a long vowel-like sound during or after feeding. By three months, cooing is his main vocal activity, and it can be heard more often when he is contented. He also makes groping movements with his tongue and lips, as if attempting to say words. This happens mostly when he is face to face with an adult. There is a shift from sounds made at the front of the mouth to those made at the back and a big increase in the range of sounds he uses. There are now also lots of expressive noises like chuckles, laughs, and squeals of pleasure. Interactive vocalization is also developing. He sometimes now responds when he is being talked to and will return an adult’s glance with cooing accompanied with a smile—a totally irresistible combination. The baby vocalizes more when he is being talked to, and most of all when “speaking to” a familiar adult who is using a lively facial expression. This exciting adult/baby vocal interchange is the true beginning of a lifetime of conversation!
Many of these developments have been made possible by the baby’s newly acquired head control and the fact that by the age of three months, he has control of all the twelve muscles responsible for eye movements. He can now lift his head when he is lying on his back and hold it steady when sitting on an adult’s knee. He can glance from one object to another, follow a moving object in a circle, and watch something being pulled along nearby.
The asymmetrical tonic neck reflex is losing sway, and many of the early reflexes are being lost. He now enjoys a sitting position, from where he shows ever-increasing interest in the world around him. He is beginning to become aware of familiar situations. He promptly looks at and shows excitement for toys placed in front of him and makes crude reaching movements toward them. He also waves his arms around, bringing them together and playing with his fingers, which he seems just to have noticed. He looks intently at them and can now grasp a rattle if it is placed in his hand. Kicking in the bath is now even more vigorous.
Recent research has shown that contrary to what was previously believed, young babies possess surprisingly advanced awareness of the principles governing the physical world. They appear to know that solid objects should not pass through each other and should not hang in midair without visible support.21 There is also evidence that the infant by three months of age can understand the existence of hidden objects.22 The mystery remains as to why babies don’t use this knowledge, not searching for hidden objects until they are eight to nine months—the age at which it was previously thought babies understood the existence of hidden objects.
We also now know that infants begin to form concepts from birth. By three months, if shown, for example, a series of pictures of horses, they are able to form a concept of a horse that excludes other animals, including zebras.23
The newborn has become a surprisingly competent little scientist in three short months.
You are now at the end of the first three months, and you are likely to find that your baby is
•chuckling and laughing when you play with him, making it very evident how much he enjoys this;
•cooing and making a number of different sounds containing a vowel and a consonant;
•beginning occasionally to make sounds back to you when you talk to him (conversation is beginning!);
•showing you that he is very interested in speech by looking around for speakers and watching their lips and mouths;
•showing interest in other nonhuman sounds, like those associated with domestic activities; and
•demonstrating his enjoyment in listening to music.
The ability to listen, to focus on what we hear, begins at birth and develops in stages. It has a long road to maturity, and is possibly the most neglected and underrated developmental skill. Yet it is a vital underpinning to language and intellectual development. Listening is also one of the areas most sensitive to environmental influences.
As we have already explained, a baby at birth listens to and shows recognition of sounds such as his mother’s and father’s voices, which he has been able to hear for the past two months in utero. Evidence that he is listening is also given by his reflex turning toward low quiet sounds24 and his cessation of activity at times when a new sound occurs near him. He initially shows undifferentiated responses to the many noises in his environment, as very few sounds as yet have any meaning for him. (Imagine not being able to distinguish the rattle of a cup on a saucer from the scrape of a key in the lock.) Within a few weeks, however, he begins to notice the sounds that are important to him, such as the those connected with feeding. He can only do this at first when the sounds are very close to him, but as the links between the noises and their sources become more secure, he begins to be able to recognize them at greater distances.
The infant is primed for interaction, and his listening abilities and their development reflect this. We’ve heard how in the first months he looks for speakers and is quieted by a soothing voice, and how by four weeks he has the amazing ability to distinguish between phonemes. In the second and third months he’s most interested in voices, but also in music and all the other sounds in his environment as well. At this stage he has, however, no ability at all to focus on foreground sound and tune out background. This inability has very important implications for the BabyTalk program.
When speaking of an infant’s “attention,” it’s important to examine two features. The first is that the span is extremely short. The second is that the baby has no mechanism at all for coping with distractions.
In the first month, watch the way he will look at a toy only for a brief few seconds. Similarly, he will fixate only momentarily on your face, and when you are feeding him, you will be able to catch his eye only briefly.
There are changes in the second month. He develops the ability to sustain attention for a short time, first to an attractive object moving horizontally, and then a week or so later to one moving vertically. You’ll notice how he becomes immobile, gazing with great intensity at something that has caught his interest. He may also look at you intently, although still quite briefly. He will now be giving attention to all the voices around him, and not only to those most familiar to him.
The third month sees the very beginnings of the baby’s ability to control his attention. He can now for the first time shift his focus from one object to another, although at this stage only in brief glances. He can now watch for a short time an interesting object moving in a circle, and also one pulled along by a string. He is showing more sustained attention to people, gazing at speakers’ mouths and enjoying watching people moving about. By the end of this time, he is just beginning to be able to direct his gaze to where someone else is looking—the first precursor to the vital language learning ability of sharing joint attention with an adult.
HOW TO INTERACT
Play at this period, as at all stages, combines beautifully with language exercises. It is based entirely upon adult-baby interaction, and it does not yet involve external objects. Your baby will cleverly trigger you into the activities he finds most fun and rewarding. Adults, therefore, are virtually the only playthings babies need at this time.
In the newborn period, physical play with him is hugely enjoyable. Pat his feet, gently tickle his face, allow his fingers to curl around yours, count toes, and gently rub your forehead on his tummy. All these activities, in tandem with verbal input, serve to stimulate the baby and maintain the best level of arousal to enable him to explore his environment with all his senses. Play, even in these early weeks, is important in forming a trusting relationship. Building up a repertoire of shared intentions, activities, and knowledge between you and your baby provides an essential basis for language development at a later time.
After a few weeks, your baby will begin to require things to look at and listen to, and toward the end of this period, to hold. Look for mobiles with sharp color contrasts, particularly black and white, which can be very interesting to look at. Simple bells and other musical toys are good to have around to stimulate listening skills.
By three months, your baby will enjoy waving a rattle if you put it into his hand and will start to reach toward objects. Brightly colored toys that are easy to handle and safe to chew will be popular. Have a variety of textures on hand, though a simple cloth can be one of the very best toys at this stage. The baby’s mouth is his main means of exploration, but he will also start to
OUTSIDE YOUR HALF HOUR
•Keep talking, about what you are doing or what is happening. It enables him to hear the whole “shape” of the language.
•Keep background noise to a minimum so that he can focus on one set of sounds at a time.
•Use short sentences and lots of repetition.
•Sing to him, whatever and whenever it takes your fancy.
look at objects that are farther away now and likes to see different things. He will love music and singing and will also relish opportunities to kick and move relatively free from clothing. He needs time to play alone with his toys as well as lots of play with you and other adults.
TELEVISION AND VIDEOS
We are going to talk about television quite a lot in the course of the program. It has become a very prominent part of our society, and it can be of enormous value to children at certain stages, helping them to learn and opening up many facets of the world to them that would otherwise be closed. It can, however, also impede development, particularly in the very early stages of life.
As we have seen, infants and young children have a wonderful propensity for communication and interaction and can make enormous strides with amazing rapidity in the early months and years. For this to happen, however, it is necessary for the baby to have a responsive communicative partner, and the television can in no way fulfill this role.
Though infants as young as a few weeks can become mesmerized by the bright moving colors on the TV, babies require many hands-on opportunities to explore and understand the world around them. Please do not be tempted to use the television to stop your baby from fussing or crying.
Cause for Concern
We have talked about the wide range of normal development, but as parents, we all want to know as soon as possible when there are indications that our children may have a problem. Below are circumstances in which it would be advisable to seek professional advice about your baby or little child’s language development. (Please remember, though, that rapid progress in one area can result in a temporary delay in another.)
It is important to recognize that no checklist can be a substitute for a professional opinion. If you are in any doubt, even if the reason for your concern is not mentioned here, do take your baby or little child to see a speech and language therapist as soon as possible.
There could be cause for concern
•if your baby does not smile;
•if he is not quieted by a voice or by being picked up;
•if he does not coo with little vowel sounds;
•if he never turns toward a light or the sound of a rattle; or
•if he does not cry when a feeding is due.
The BabyTalk Program
Here you are, home with your miraculous new baby, exalted, knowing your life is changed forever, sharing every parent’s desire to do the best for your precious little being. But you’re exhausted. No need to worry. As we have seen, it is clear that new babies are far from passive partners in the interaction process, but instead bring an enormous amount to the party.
Nature has arranged matters so that as adults we are biologically triggered to respond to infants with appropriate communicative and interactive input at this stage. Many aspects of baby care, of course, need to be learned, but interestingly, in the very early stages, we seem to know all about communication. While other child-rearing practices differ greatly in almost all cultures, the biologically triggered responses to language are the same. Sadly, this is
Spend time alone with him.
not the case at later stages, when we all need to learn what to do and how to do it.
In the first few months, provided that some important conditions are met, you’ll easily master the techniques. We will discuss these conditions, and for the rest, we’ll describe what you will almost certainly find to be happening.
THE RIGHT TIME
Half an hour a day
The most important criterion to the program is to establish half an hour a day to be one-on-one with your baby. It is a time when you can be totally focused on each other and gain the maximum benefit from the learning activities. Unfortunately, it is too easy to fill our lives with other things so that time is sometimes difficult to arrange on a daily basis, particularly with children who are not first in the family. It really is worth going to almost any lengths to arrange your schedule for BabyTalk.
At this stage, the program can be done by extending feeding and diaper changing rather than setting aside specific times. This time together will give you a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other, for you to see the world from his viewpoint and to become fully aware of his amazing abilities.
THE RIGHT PLACE
Your playtime environment
The next essential, which again will run throughout the whole program, is establishing an environment that is quiet and as free from distraction as possible. This means no television, videos, radio, or music (although these will all have their place at other times and in other situations). It is also important to have as little chance as possible of other people coming in and out. As we have seen, attention will develop in small, subtle ways, but it can only do so in an environment relatively free from distractions. The playroom is probably not the best place. Perhaps the nursery or another quiet bedroom can provide the optimum conditions.
Listening is the beginning of the long developmental path toward structuring the auditory field—to develop the ability to focus on a particular foreground sound and “tune out” background noise. Babies need a much greater difference between background and foreground sound than do adults in order to be able to begin to do this. So close the windows and take the phone off the hook, if you can.
Go it alone
At this stage, the magical ability to discriminate between phonemes—those sounds that differentiate meaning, like the first sounds in “pin” and “bin”—is developing. Evidence suggests that the environment be structured in such a way that these discriminative abilities have a chance to operate. The baby must have plenty of opportunities to hear speech very clearly. This means that there must be times when the infant is listening to one adult speaking to him in an otherwise quiet environment. A background of adults talking to one another is not helpful to this process. The implication of this is that although it would be lovely for different adults in your baby’s life to enjoy the program with him, it is very important that they do so at different times. BabyTalk is a one-on-one process.
HOW TO TALK WITH YOUR BABY
Let your voice be heard
Start talking to your child on day one! There is a considerable body of research evidence that shows that the quantity of speech addressed to children relates strongly to their language development.25, 26 You can’t start too soon.
Make sure the room is quiet for some of the time.
Talk to him a lot!
Of course he won’t understand what you are saying yet, but your voice communicates your feelings about him clearly enough. It is one of the most powerful facilitators to the mutual bonding experience, one that is essential to mental health. We have seen already how effective sound is in soothing the baby, but it is also one of the only means to signal your responsiveness to him. Speaking communicates that you acknowledge him not only as a unique human being, but also as a social creature with lots to bring to the party!
Make it interesting
What you talk about really does not matter at all at this stage, although it will be very important indeed later on. Talk to him about whatever is happening, or what is on your mind. You might say, for example, “It’s our playtime. You’re looking at teddy.” I remember very clearly telling my daughter all about the landmarks of the route on our way home from the hospital where she had been born! Alternatively you might say something like “I do like this green paper with animals on it that we chose for your nursery—I hope you will too!”
In the quiet times when you are alone together, try these BabyTalk activities:
• Use short simple sentences, which are very tuneful. You might say something like “Up you come” or “You’re on my knee.”
• Speak slowly, with pauses between each phrase or sentence.
• Use a variety of different pitches, higher than those you use when you speak to adults.
• Utilize lots of repetition, for example, “Here are your fingers, one finger, another finger, another finger” and so on, or “Teddy’s eyes, teddy’s nose, teddy’s mouth.”
• Make sure that you are next to him, face to face, so you will not be able to resist touching him a lot.
• Use the kind of delicious nonsense that comes naturally at this time, things like “Who’s gorgeous? You are! Yes, you are. You’re just gorgeous!”
We all have a built-in way of talking to babies. This trait not only evolved because infants have been found to prefer these sounds from birth,27, 28 but also because they are helpful to them in a number of very important ways. Babies are particularly sensitive to rhythm, loudness, and tunefulness, and the high-pitched voice adults tend to use at this time relates to the fact that the size and shape of the baby’s outer ear canal makes it resonate at higher frequencies than that of adults. They actually hear these sounds better! It is also exactly the form of speech that best enables a baby to develop the amazing ability to distinguish between phonemes—those little sounds that change the meaning of words—by the time he is a month old!
High-pitched speech is most likely to gain the baby’s attention. A baby’s attention is also attracted by the smiling, moving, changing face that accompanies this kind of speech. Linked closely with attention is the baby’s level of arousal. By varying the frequency of your head movements and eye gaze to accompany your voice, you will ensure that baby is neither bored nor overstimulated.
At around six to eight weeks, you will start to notice that you and he are beginning to build “conversation.” Now is the time to fit your vocal “turns” into his activities. For example, coo back to him when he coos, move your head from side to side immediately after he does, or return his smile with a beaming one of your own. Notice that he coos more at this stage when you talk to him animatedly, with exaggerated facial expressions and lots of tune in your voice. You should naturally respond to his sounds, his body language, and his facial expression. When he fusses you can answer, “Oh, you’re hungry. Let’s get you some milk.” This will help him to understand that our vocalizations can have particular effects, communicating specific messages.
As he approaches three months, you will find yourselves engaged more and more in interactive “conversations,” copying the sounds he makes and responding to his still unintentional communications.
Now that you’ve established a BabyTalk routine, it’s time to expand your repertoire a bit. Make sure you spend time singing. Not only will he enjoy and be soothed by your voice, but he will begin developing his listening techniques. There is no better foreground sound to listen to during your half hour of program time. Which songs, tunes, or pop hits you choose to sing at this stage is not important—just sing what you remember and enjoy. Frequent repetition of the same tunes is helpful.
You may be wondering whether you will find yourself talking to him in this way outside the BabyTalk program. Probably. But at other times, of course you will be busy with other things, like cooking. When you can, try to provide a running commentary about what you are doing or what is happening. For example, explain to him what or why you’re cooking: “I’m peeling the potatoes. Here goes one into the pan, and here goes another. I’d better hurry up—we need to have lunch early today.” This kind of talking serves two purposes. First, it keeps you in contact with each other when you are not directly involved in an activity together. Second, it also enables him to hear the whole “shape” of the language, in terms of the rhythm, tune, and stress of continuous speech—very important information for him.
Questioning is a large part of adult conversational input to children and can be very helpful or very unhelpful according to how and why questions are used. In the first three months, you will find yourself asking lots of purely rhetorical questions, like “Who’s a clever boy?” Such questions expect no reply, are in fact emotive statements, and are absolutely fine. In later chapters we’ll discuss the questions that are not fine to ask older children during your time together.
A special note for bilingual families
I have received many queries about which language to use for babies born into families where more than one language is spoken. One of the most recent was from a father who told me that he was French, his wife was Greek, and the family lived in London. He wanted to know which language they should speak to their month-old daughter. My first reaction, as always upon hearing about situations like this, was to think, What a lucky little girl to have the chance of becoming fluent in three languages. I told the man that the one language they did not need to worry about at all was English, as their little daughter would absorb that from the environment in due course. I then advised him and his wife to always use their respective mother tongues with their baby when they were alone with her, and assured them that she would learn both languages without any difficulty, particularly if each of them participated in the BabyTalk program. By developing basic language skills in this manner, she would be able to acquire English as a third language extremely easily later on.
Many parents think that their children might be confused and held back by exposure to more than one language, but this only happens if parents mix up the two to a very high degree. For instance, a parent who uses a number of words from each language within one sentence or speaks a language that is not his own mother tongue can confuse his little children.