All posts tagged how to talk to babies

The Importance of Touch

New Research Focuses on the Power of Physical Contact, via NY Times: “In recent years some researchers have begun to focus on a different, often more subtle kind of wordless communication: physical contact. Momentary touches, they say — whether an exuberant high five, a warm hand on the shoulder, or a creepy touch to the arm — can communicate an even wider range of emotion than gestures or expressions, and sometimes do so more quickly and accurately than words.

The evidence that such messages can lead to clear, almost immediate changes in how people think and behave is accumulating fast. Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.”


A common parenting tendency to attempt to modify children’s behavior primarily with our voices, followed up by physical intervention when this fails. Touch is rarely proactive, and is often negative.
Earlier today, my 14 month-old Cezar had climbed onto the table and was putting my necklace into a cup of cold tea. Preoccupied myself, I called out to him to please stop, worried he would spill on the plethora of electronics in the vicinity. He paused and looked at me, undoubtedly made curious by my stern and animated reaction. I called out to him again. Not breaking eye contact, he slowly lowered the necklace back into the tea.  Sheepish about my own lazy and incredibly futile method, I went and retrieved the cup. He of course protested and became even more upset when I took him off the table.

I know I am not alone in practicing this sort of ineffective pattern of communication; in fact, I received a question last week from a woman who was at her wits end with her toddler, whom she said “doesn’t listen to anything I say! In fact, she seems to deliberately do the opposite just to get a reaction!”

I find it interesting that we treat verbal cues as though they are imbued with magical properties that should change the behavior of children as though the utterances were literally spells or incantations. Why do we assume that spoken language is or should be the most effective way of prompting kids?  One thing I’ve noticed is that many of us seem wary of using physical guidance or instruction until all attempts at verbal persuasion have been exhausted and frustration has set in. This sets up the subsequent physical interaction to be negative since it comes in the form of intervention, rather than proactivity.

Back to my Cezar. In that typical situation, it would have been more effective for me to have gone over to him the instant I took notice, and provided assistance on what he was trying to do. If he was curious about the liquid in the cup,  I might have brough over a spoon and guiding his hand with it to show him how to stir slowly without spilling. If it was too hot, I could have showed him how to put his hand near the surface to test for heat. I could have also done a separate demonstration on how to put the necklace on himself carefully, and away from the tea. The rule of thumb here is that they are curious, and there is almost always a way to address that curiosity safely; it just requires some hands-on assistance, rather than shouting crude commands.  Physical interaction should be supportive and proactive, and the verbal cues should be supplementary and explanatory. This method is also most likely to be safe long-term since the lessons learned from exploration are more effective than ones learned from directives or intimidation.

Here are some tips I’m using to help me become better at non-verbal communication:

  • Move closer. Don’t let your voice be the first thing on the scene.
  • Instead of “shhh-ing” a crying child or asking “are you okay?” Simply use touch and your physical presence to send a message of security and comfort. Often there is no need to say anything anyways.
  • In any situation where you might say “Stop that!” or “Put that down!” consider how you can use a positive non-verbal approach to solve the problem. It might be initiating an activity together, or giving a hand with something, or simply exploring the breakable object with them until their curiosity is satisfied.

Language is wonderful, and I strive to provide full commentary and explanations along side hands-on learning. However, the need for touch and positive physical interaction is primary to human wellbeing, and is an oft-neglected component of childhood socialization. Rather than outsource comfort and stimulation to external objects, we need to rediscover the real source of those physical needs.

Do you have any tips on how to use more non-verbal communication? Share them in a comment!

It’s Simple: Talk More

In their 1995 study, Betty Hart, Ph.D., and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D. made a revelatory discovery: a child’s academic success at age 9 and 10 is directly linked the the number of words spoken to them before age 3.

Most revelatory discovery was that the “type” of language used isn’t as important as the amount.

Risley notes that both talkative and non-talkative (taciturn) parents use the same amount of “command” type talk, including directives like “No”, “Come here”, and “Stop that”. While the taciturn parents use almost entirely command talk, the extra talk from the more talkative parents is automatically more positive and complex:

“It was ‘chit-chat’ and gossip and running commentary that was automatically rich in the varied vocabulary, complex ideas, subtle guidance, and positive reinforcement that are thought to be important to intellectual development — the ‘good stuff’ of Developmental Psychology.”

The implications are that if we can simply talk more to our children, the commands will remain constant; thus, our ratio with enriched speech will improve the more we speak.

“ We don’t have to (try to) get parents to learn how to talk differently to their children. We just have to help them practice talking more.“


“Many parents are raised in a family culture of sociability. They give to their babies the benefits of the activities and conversation they share and the vocabulary growth it engenders. And, they pass on to their babies the culture of sociableness (and conversation) itself, a pattern that is repeated for generations to come. These are advantaged families and advantaged children. But in many of the family subcultures of poverty, the hours of babies’ lives are mostly empty of adult-provided structure and symbolic accompaniment and interaction is only when necessary. To change these family subcultures we must focus on teaching parents, and potential parents, how to fill up all the awake time of babies with activities and conversation so that they are accumulating as much coherent and symbolic experience and social dance practice as their advantaged American age-mates – hour after hour, day after day, month after month from the very beginning.”

How can we start to talk more?

Turn off the TV. The verdict is in: For every hour a television was turned on, babies heard 770 fewer words from an adult. 

Form new associations. For instance, while you are doing your child’s hair, recount to them the kinds of styles your mom did your hair in. Talk about animals that also have long enough hair to brush or braid.

Give a running commentary. While you are occupied with something, for instance, cooking dinner, describe your actions as though you are recording a youtube how-to video. Count the stairs as you climb. Describe your actions and outfit as you get dressed in the morning. Even if your child isn’t paying attention, they are absorbing your language and increasing their intellectual capacity.

Be mindful of technology. I’m a big offender here. I like to use the internet for communication as much as (or more than) the next person, so I try to take moments to think of ways to introduce kids to the topics I’m reading or discussing.  For instance, an article about currency inflation may bore my 4 year old, but I can use the opportunity to give her an “intro-level” discussion about what money is and why we use it. If I have to send a message I will often speak my message as I am typing.
Do you have any ideas for increasing talk-time? Share them in the comments! (Or, turn of your computer and go talk to your kids!)