Baby Talk: Silly Sounds That Carry Real Impact

Study suggests it helps promote language development

MONDAY, March 12, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- If you've ever felt silly cooing "baby talk" to your infant, relax. New research suggests you're giving your child just what he or she needs to begin developing language skills and to bond with you, with every "goo-goo, ga-ga" you utter.

The study was designed by Japanese researchers who examined how newborns respond to adult-directed speech (ADS) and to infant-directed speech (IDS) and found that the frontal area of the babies' brains become more active in response to "baby talk."

"When the neonates heard IDS rather than ADS, (the result was increased oxygenation) in the frontal area of the brain," said the study's lead author, Yuri Saito of Hiroshima University. "This result suggests that the emotional tone of maternal utterances could have a role in activating the brains of neonates to attend to the utterances, even while sleeping."

The researchers studied 20 newborns between the ages of 2 and 9 days, with an average age of 4.4 days. Their average gestational age was 38.9 weeks, just shy of the 40 weeks considered optimal for pregnancy. All of the babies appeared normal and healthy and seemed to have normal hearing.

Two sensors were placed on either side of the babies' forehead to measure the oxygenation of the blood going to the frontal area of the brain. The device used to test the babies' brains is called near-infrared spectroscopy.

Once a newborn was sleeping, the mothers were directed to read a scene from Little Red Riding Hood in Japanese to either their baby (in baby talk) or to an adult. As the mothers read the passage, the researchers recorded their voices. The recordings were then played for the babies, and their brain oxygenation was recorded.

Saito said the main reason the researchers tested sleeping babies was to ensure that the scientists weren't recording any increase in brain oxygenation due to visual stimuli.

When the researchers compared oxygenation levels when the babies were exposed to baby talk compared to adult speech, they found that baby talk increased the blood oxygenation in the frontal area of the brain. Concentrations of oxygenated hemoglobin rose an average of 0.25 millimoles per liter (mmol/l), while these concentrations decreased an average of 0.23 mmol/l when the babies heard their mothers reading to the adult researcher.

Results of the study are published in the March issue of the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Dr. Marilyn Augustyn, an associate professor of pediatrics and a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center and the Boston University School of Medicine, wrote an accompanying editorial in the same issue of the journal. She said that while the research was "small and preliminary, this is a compelling and well-done study that provides physiologic evidence for what we've known clinically."

Saito said infants respond so well to baby talk that "they form a bond by recognizing a caring person. Also, because it is easy to hear IDS, it promotes language development."

Augustyn said the bottom line from this study is that parents need to know "it's important to talk to babies. Your babies are listening. What's important is that they hear your voice; it's not necessarily the content of what you say."

She said you could simply talk to your baby about the mundane activities of the day, such as "I'm changing your diaper now." But, when done in baby talk, it's something the baby will respond to and will help him or her begin to develop language skills.

More information

To learn more about communicating with infants, visit the Nemours Foundation.

SOURCES: Yuri Saito, Hiroshima University, Japan; Marilyn Augustyn, M.D., associate professor, pediatrics and developmental behavioral pediatrician, Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine; March 2007 Archives of Diseases in Childhood
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