Chattering Away to Babies Is Even Better for Them Than Reading

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Parents of tiny babies: When you’re home with the kid, keep a one-sided conversation going about anything and everything while you’re folding laundry, making dinner, or doing whatever else around the house. A steady stream of idle chatter from mom or dad’s mouth improves the child’s cognitive development, even more so than reading to them does, according to the results of a study recently published in the journal Language Teaching and Therapy.

Aisling Murray, of the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland, initially set out to investigate the importance of reading, and whether reading to infants was associated with higher scores on indicators of cognitive development than other language-based interactions between parent and infant, like talking. She expected that reading would win out; the question, really, was how much better reading was for language skills. 

Murray used data from the Growing Up in Ireland study, which included a sample of 7,845 infants. Parents were asked how often they read or spoke to their 9-month-old infants, and Murray and her team found that parents who said they “always” talked to their baby while doing things around the house tended to have babies who scored higher on a test designed to measure babies’ burgeoning problem-solving and communication skills; reading to the baby regularly, in comparison, was also associated with an increase in problem-solving and communication skills, though not to the same degree. 

In an email, Murray explained some potential reasons why parents who babble away to their infants may be improving their babies’ cognitive powers: 

Talking directly to babies possibly encourages the baby to attempt to engage in two-way communication and better focuses their attention on (their) input,  although this isn’t a  hypothesis we can test directly with this particular research. And talking to the baby is something that can happen very frequently throughout the day, and is easier to combine with other parenting tasks, whereas reading to an infant might only be for a few minutes a day a couple of times a week. 

Reading is still important for children’s development, of course. But this finding is good news for busy parents, as it suggests something incredibly simple they can do for their little ones, which doesn’t take any extra time. As Murray concludes in her paper, “Even for parents … who lack time to sit down to focus on reading a story, this research suggests that just talking to the child and engaging him or her in an (apparently) one-sided conversation can make a positive contribution to the child’s cognitive development.”