(CNN)This might sound strange, but I found talking to my dog much less stressful than talking to my babies. They had a lot in common: Both were non-verbal, both relied on me for their well-being, and both were in possession of what Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz called “baby schema.”
This is the combination of large head, round face and big eyes that we humans find irresistibly cute and motivates us to care for vulnerable and needy creatures.
The difference between dog and baby, though, is potential consequences. Nobody tells you how important it is to talk to your dog. Everybody tells you how crucial it is to talk to your baby.
According to the mountain of research on the importance of talking to babies and toddlers, the first three years of a child’s life are a period of rapid and expansive brain development. Talking to young children helps fire up the connections that will allow them to process language. The more words they hear, the stronger those connections get.
When there’s a lot at stake, performance anxiety tends to kick in. Do I have to be in constant narration mode when chatting with my 18-month-old, like a Warner Herzog of my own life? “Now, Mommy wets her toothbrush. Now, Mommy puts the toothbrush in her mouth …” Or is it OK to let it all unfold a bit more organically, including regular breaks for — dare I say it? — silence?
Make it a conversation
“Back and forth responsiveness” is the most important thing when talking to a baby or toddler, according to Alice Honig, professor emerita in the department of human development and family science at Syracuse University and co-author of “Talking With Your Baby.” “It’s about real intimate connection.”
For young babies, this means making a small “coo” sound and waiting, patiently, for the baby to make a “coo” in response. She said parents and caregivers should try this out early on, even if the baby doesn’t “coo” back right away.
“It sends them the message that ‘I’m important. Somebody is talking to me. I have to focus.’ Before one month, they can focus when we talk to them.”
Honig said that as babies mature, it is appropriate to move from “coos” to words to sentences. However, do not stop speaking in the kind of baby talk experts call “parentese.” This is that high-octave, musical, long-voweled “schmoopy” tone that we associate with affection.
Another important thing to remember is that even if children can’t speak yet, they can still communicate.
Honig noted the distinction between expressive language and receptive language. The former is being able to talk back. The latter is being able to understand what was said.
My 18-month-old’s expressive language skills are at an age-appropriate minimum. But his receptive language skills are not bad! The other day, my husband and I were talking about how it was time to feed the dog, and our toddler, without instruction, went and grabbed the dog bowl and walked it over to where the food is.
“Receptive language is the one you want to be alert to,” Honig said, explaining that it is how we know the child really understands what is happening around her and what is being said to her.
Honig encourages parents and caregivers to work on cultivating these receptive skills, largely by asking questions. She said toddlers can benefit from being asked questions with one-word answers. Apple or pear? Truck or ball? Happy or sad? (Emotion questions are doubly effective, because they teach them how to label, and ultimately understand, their feelings.)
Parents should also be asking open-ended questions that push young children to think critically and creatively, which communicates that their opinion matters. Ask toddlers whether they can figure out how to get around a puddle in a park or what they can do with a pile of blocks or with a handful of clay. Many will respond through their bodies, even if they don’t have the words.
As to the right timing for all these stages, Honig says, it depends. “Let your child teach you where your child is at,” she said.
Quality can matter more than quantity
In 2003, education researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley coined the term “word gap” based on their findings that low-income children hear, on average, 30 million fewer words by the age of 3 than their wealthier counterparts. As a result, their language skills tended to be less-developed, and they were less likely to succeed in school.
Their findings have been both critiqued and confirmed over the years, and many nonprofits and government initiatives were set up to increase the number of words children heard in their early years.
Though both this study and many of the interventions inspired by it are important, the conversation around the word gap is often misleading. The takeaway is that, when it comes to talking to young children, it’s the volume that matters.
“My sense is that we are coming to a consensus in the field, and a number of studies have found, that the types of conversations we have with children matter more than the number of words,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of psychology at Temple University and author of a number of books on early childhood development.
Like Honig, she said that the key is to make talking to your young children feel like a conversation as much as possible. “I responded to you, and you responded to me, and we both listened to what the other was saying. It is really important to human species; think about it is as human glue. … This matters for building brain area, whereas the number of words don’t.”
Hirsh-Pasek said parents shouldn’t feel as though they have to narrate their lives for their children. It’s perfectly acceptable to, say, push a small child in a cart down an aisle in a supermarket and not speak out loud the name of a single item on the shelf.
However, as that worry recedes another one should replace it: screens. “There is a lot of talk about kids’ media use, but the real issue, with respect to language and conversations, is not kids’ media use [but rather] adult media use. The more we are constantly looking down at our cell phone, the more we turn off, the more they get detached from conversation,” she said.
Hirsh-Pasek encourages parents to put their devices away as much as possible during the evening or on weekends. Not only will they be better suited to participate in conversations, they’ll be more likely to start one themselves.
As crazy as it is to compare talking to a young child to talking to a dog, I think my early puppy days might have actually taught me a thing or two on how to communicate with bipeds. After looking at the research and speaking with experts, I see that the best way to tell if you are communicating productively with a baby is to ask yourself: Am I enjoying this?
Chances are, if you are feeling a connection, immersed in one moment shared by two, then your baby is probably feeling the same. That uninhibited ease with which I approached talking to my dog is, it turns out, not a bad place to start with our children, as well. Seek joy, indulge curiosities, and chances are that all the pieces will fall into place.
Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.
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