It may come as no surprise that babies hear more words and get more back-and-forth baby talk from their mothers than their fathers.
Moms, after all, still do more hands-on baby care and take more time off from work to be with babies.
But researchers say they were surprised at what they found when they outfitted babies with microphones and told parents to turn them on only when both parents were around: Babies heard three times more words from moms than from dads. And dads rarely engaged in baby talk unless moms were in the conversation, too.
The results, published Monday in Pediatrics, suggest that dads could speak up more and do their babies some good, says researcher Betty Vohr, director of the neonatal follow-up clinic at Women & Infants Hospital inProvidence, R.I.
“We have our work to do in getting dads into this loop and telling them how important they are in terms of infant development,” Vohr says.
Vohr and colleagues are studying the effects of early language exposure on babies at risk for language delays. A 1995 study found that the number of words a small child hears is linked strongly with later intelligence and academic success – and that children from affluent households hear 30 million more words by age 3 than poor children do.
Back then, word counts were done by human transcribers. Today, a computer can do the counting. The computer also can distinguish male and female voices and pick out the pre-speech vocalizations of the youngest infants. Armed with that technology, Vohr’s team was able to sort through data on 33 families recorded for three days each – once just after a baby’s birth, once a few weeks later and once at 7 months. Home recordings were done only on days both parents were home.
They found that the majority of words infants heard, directed at them or in the background, came from mothers. Also:
• About one-quarter of vocalizations from infants got an adult response.
• Those responses came from moms alone more than 70% of the time, from both parents 18% to 23% of the time and from dads alone just 6% to 12% of the time.
• Moms responded more often to girls than boys. Dads responded more often to boys, but the difference was so small that the researchers said it was not significant.
The study is small and included only families in which a male and female parent lived together, so it might not represent all families and should be repeated on a larger scale, Vohr says.
Still, the work is well done and provides “a window into babies’ natural language environments,” says Dana Suskind, a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and director of an intervention program called The Thirty Million Words Initiative. She was not involved in the study…. see more