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Responding to young babies when they prattle encourages them to communicate. A new study suggests that it's not just talking to babies that matters, but also what you say.

Have you ever heard parents — especially fathers — say that they loved their young babies but did much better when their kids reached the toddler stage and started to walk and talk, because slightly older children are just so much easier to relate to? Infant prattling might be cute enough to melt a parent's heart, but it hardly constitutes a conversation. Or does it?

The prattling an infant does can be a meaningless monologue, but it may also represent the first real verbal communication between parent and child. Parents who answer their infants' cute noises with smiles, words, and listening demonstrate that noises are a way to communicate.

How attentive parents are when responding to those early prattling sounds can have a significant impact on a child's subsequent language development, according to a new study. 

Mother's Communication With Baby Matters

The study, published in the journal Infancy, was conducted by researchers from the University of Iowa and Indiana University. The study team observed 12 mothers and their babies during free-play sessions twice a week for half an hour, starting when the babies were eight months old and continuing over a six-month period.

The researchers examined how mothers responded to their infants' positive vocalizations — those little cooing and babbling noises — and especially how moms responded when the noises were directed at them. The conclusion was interesting and should encourage new mothers everywhere to not only respond to those cooing sounds, but also to make an effort to understand what their babies are trying to tell them. 

Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, said: "It's not that we found responsiveness matters. It's how a mother responds that matters."

You won't find many parents who think replying to their infants is totally pointless, and this isn't the first study detailing that interacting with babies is good for their development. Indeed, a 2003 study also conducted by Gros-Louis and colleagues showed that babies of mothers who responded positively to infant babbling (by smiling, touching them, and talking to them, for instance) were more likely to develop language skills, including more advanced syllabic sounds, earlier than those babies whose mothers didn't respond to babbling very much.

Infants Of Responsive Mothers Learned How To Communicate

What's so special about this study then? It made a crucial new discovery: when moms responded to what they believed their babies were trying to tell them, babies developed better language skills earlier. Though this latest study looked at mothers and babies, earlier research already suggests that fathers have a similar impact on infant language development. 

Babies with mothers who tried to understand what they were saying responded by directing more babbling towards their moms, rather than just producing sounds. Julie Gros-Louis said: "The infants were using vocalizations in a communicative way, in a sense, because they learned they are communicative."

A follow-up questionnaire of the participating mothers also showed that ultra-responsive moms were more likely to end up with communicative 15-month olds who used more words and gestures than their peers. Study co-author Andrew King, a senior scientist in psychology at Indiana University, said that the results show that "social stimulation shapes at a very early age what children attend to".

In other words, babies whose mothers attempted to have real conversations with them responded by developing the ability to have real conversations earlier.

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