'Nothing short of remarkable': Study finds parents' chats with their toddlers pay off 10 years later

Attention exhausted parents: The next time your toddler starts making strange noises or babbling about Paw Patrol, try to strike up a conversation — it could make a big difference later, researchers say.

Doctors in the U.S. and Canada encouraged to promote early literacy to families

A woman reads with her two-year-old son. Taking turns speaking with a young child while exploring a book seems to encourage a youngster's brain development. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty)

Attention exhausted parents: The next time your toddler starts making strange noises or babbling about Paw Patrol, try to strike up a conversation — it could make a big difference later, researchers say.  

A study published this week in Pediatrics found that toddlers with parents who spend lots of time listening and chatting with them are more likely to have better language skills and higher IQs a decade later than youngsters left hanging in silence. 

"If you knew that children who were fed a certain nutritional diet at age two were not only far healthier as toddlers, but much more likely to be in a healthy weight range at age 12, you'd want to pursue those findings, wouldn't you?" said study author Jill Gilkerson, senior director of research and evaluation at the LENA Foundation, a non-profit charity in Boulder, Col. 

"Conversational turns are that diet, that nutrition, for the brain."

Researchers analyzed more than 9,000 hours of transcribed day-long recordings from 146 Denver-area children ages two months to four years old, and their parents. The children had followup tests of their language skills and cognitive abilities, such as working memory and reasoning, between ages nine and 14.

Conversation nourishes the brain

The families were asked to provide day-long audio recordings for six months. The parent would place the recording device in a vest the young child wears. The software was programmed to automatically count the child's vocalizations and verbal stimulation from their mother or father.

The researchers measured conversational turn-taking, such as if a parent says something and the child responds with a word, babble or coo within five seconds, or a vocalization from the child that the parent responds to within five seconds.

Gilkerson said they found greater conversational turns are more important for developing brains than simply being exposed to words.

The study also says frequent chatting with toddlers accounted for up to 27 per cent of their higher performance in verbal comprehension a decade later, after taking socioeconomic factors into account. 

'Can't help but be astounded'

"We were expecting to see correlations based on the previous research with younger children, but can't help but be astounded that automated language measures collected at 18 months can predict anything 10 years later," Gilkerson said. "It is nothing short of remarkable, in my opinion."

The 18- to 24-month period is often called a time of "language explosion."

At some pediatricians' offices, parents are directed to literacy experts in their community, such as local librarians. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

That's why doctors in the U.S. and Canada promote early literacy to families with children under five. Previous studies suggest there's a huge payoff for a child's brain development.

For instance, the Reach Out and Read program originated in the U.S. and has since spread to some communities in the Greater Toronto Area.

At checkups, participating family doctors or pediatricians might watch a child turn the pages of a book to assess motor skills and to check how the child's eyes are tracking. Then the doctor might read aloud to the child to model how the back-and-forth conversations can work: "Feel the dog's tail. It's so soft … Point to the red truck."

Doctors help build a home library

Before families enter the exam room, a clerk will hand out books in the waiting room. And a nurse will talk to parents about resources and experts nearby to support literacy, such as providing a map of local libraries.

"Talking to your child, in a reciprocal, conversational way from an early age may improve both their language development and cognitive abilities," said Dr. Laurie Green, a family physician at St. Michael's Hospital who helped introduce the program in Toronto.

"It is important for doctors, who see this age group regularly for ... checkups and immunizations, to support this in their practices, including providing resource information to families for early years opportunities, counselling advice and providing books to build a home library." 

Green cautioned that the study included a low number of diverse families and those with low socioeconomic status, which limits the ability to generalize the finding. 

Provide tools for families 

Other factors tied to a child's language outcomes, such as their family's socioeconomic status, aren't so easily changed. But the new findings suggest that helping parents and caregivers to understand the importance of conversations and giving them the tools to make it part of their daily routines with children is possible and could have important long-term benefits, Gilkerson said.

A previous review of international studies featuring families from a variety of backgrounds also showed children in reading programs had better social and emotional skills and behaviour, as well as higher literacy skills than children who were randomly assigned to control groups.

About four out of 10 Canadian adults have inadequate literacy skills to be fully competent in the modern economy, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story mistakenly said 94 children participated in the study and provided 5,000 minutes worth of recordings. In fact, there were 146 children who provided more than 9,000 hours of recordings.
    Sep 12, 2018 3:23 PM ET

About the Author

Amina Zafar

Health writer

Amina Zafar has covered health, medical and science news at CBC since 2000. She has a degree in environmental science and a master's in journalism.