Babywearing and Speech Development
‘A child seldom needs a good talking to as a good listening to’ – Robert Brault
For most parents, developmental milestones are something that seem to be discussed by everyone we meet no matter how they are related to us. From birth, new parents are asked at every opportunity whether their child is sleeping through, whether they are crawling or walking. Without a doubt, the milestone that most new parents look forward to the most is the moment when our little one makes their first utterance that we can understand. We have spent months trying to differentiate between the ‘I’m hungry’ and the ‘I’m tired’ cry. This first word (usually ‘dada’ or ‘mama’) can be the light at the end of the tunnel that we have been craving.
There has been some anecdotal evidence reported by parents that their children who were ‘worn’ as babies made their first utterances earlier and seemed to have a spurt in their vocabulary earlier than their other children. We know that every child develops at his or her own rate and that this is dependent on a number of factors. However, can babywearing set up an optimal environment for speech development?
It has been established that the first three years of a child’s life are critical for speech development. Interestingly, these three years are also those years in which babywearing is at its highest rate for the infant. Whilst toddlers and preschool children continue to be worn for all the amazing benefits that babywearing can offer both them and their parents, it is undoubtedly harder to contain a three and four year old in a carrier for an extended length of time as we go about our days. Does the prevalence of babywearing in these three, vital years set our children up for optimal speech development?
Most of us would agree that social interaction and infant-directed speech is of prime importance to create an optimal environment for speech development. The more rich, diverse and stimulating a child’s environment is, the more likely that this will provide an environment just right for speech development. When we wear our children, they experience the world at our level. Everyday becomes an adventure experienced from the safety and comfort of our carrier, wrap or sling. As we explore this world we are more likely to chat to our child about our actions. We explain where we are, we point out interesting objects. How many of us still point out helicopters and planes when we are alone by ourselves? Everything is new for these tiny children and we want to explain everything to them and help them find their place in this world. Strangers who speak to our children are always ‘vetted’ by our children by examining our reactions before determining their own. Familiar reactions and facial expressions by the caregiver provide the reassurance that our children require in order to interact with this new addition to their circle. We already have established that children who are worn cry less (Hunkziker, U. A. and Barr, R. G. (1986)) and this quiet alertness that worn children exhibit allows them to become more receptive to new learning environments and sounds.
One aspect of speech and language that is sometimes overlooked is facial expressions. It’s often said that ‘a picture can paint a thousand words’ and for infants who are unable to understand exactly what is being said in the beginning, body language and facial expressions can be a handy translator when they try to decipher exactly what their caregiver means. Imagine if we told our partner ‘I love you very much’ with a sad and dour expression. They would wonder if we were joking or being sarcastic. In the same way, our infants rely on our expressions to teach them the true meaning of words. Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek (2000) state that ‘Paying attention to faces…allows babies to look for just the right sort of information in the environment to learn more about their world’. When your child is worn in a baby carrier, wrap or sling they are at the perfect height to interpret facial expressions. When facing towards you they can easily sense when you are happy, uneasy, stressed, sad or mad and then use your behaviour to help them determine their own. Even when facing away from us some children can sense our unease or anxiety throughout our body. By being able to easily interpret these expressions your child can then also gradually recognise and remember the corresponding speech that is attached to your facial expressions.
It has long been suggested that children who hear and watch their parents sing to them have a broader vocabulary. Singing is a great way for parents to slow down the syllables of speech and the action of the mouth for a child to be able to focus their attention on the development of sound. The repetitive nature, high pitch and rhyming aspects of singing are also attractive for infants at this age. It is also interesting to note that when adults speak to infants they use an entirely different style of speech as to the form they usually converse in. Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek (2000) have studied ‘infant-directed speech’ and established that ‘We talk in a high-pitched, sing song way that seems to grab the infants attention’. This type of speech is considered invaluable to an infant’s speech development and is possibly the reason that this style of speaking to an infant is so prevalent in our society. Imagine the possibilities for an infant who is not only listening to singing whilst being worn by their caregivers but also being at the right height to watch the formation of syllables by their wearers mouth. Sears and Sears state that ‘by viewing the speaker’s mouth up close, children learn to imitate the correct speech movements for accurate articulation patterns. All these patters contribute greatly to early communication skills’. Singing is also a great way to calm a discontented baby in a sling, wrap or carrier. The soothing vibrations of the song can be felt through their body connection with us and remind them of their time in the womb when they felt similar vibrations.
Most children who are not worn have difficulty in hearing their caregivers speaking to them in certain environments. Those parents who have to commute on crowded public transport would find it difficult to not only speak over the noise of the street but also the noise of other commuters. Caregivers may find it embarrassing to have to raise their voice in a crowded area to speak to their child and so; it follows, that they would choose to remain silent. Most behavioural experts agree that getting down to your child’s level is one of the most important ways to soothe a child. Could it also be that the child is better able to understand and hear our meaning when we are giving them face-to-face contact?
But does the distance separating us bear any relevance? Can we just as easily converse to a child in a pram or stroller who is facing towards us or does the real closeness of babywearing facilitate a richer learning environment? In her groundbreaking small study funded by the British National Literacy Trust, Zeedyk (2008) examined the effects of forward-facing strollers on parent-child interaction. The results of this study indicated that only 11% of parents who were using strollers that were facing forward were speaking to their infants and that families who used the inward-facing strollers were observed speaking to their children twice as much. These caregivers and children also spent more time laughing. This study was only a small study and those children being worn in a carrier were not observed. However, it certainly is a good starting point when we are looking for a correlation between babywearing and speech development. Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek (2000) state that ‘up until four months of age, infants focus only on people who come into close view during their interactions’. If the first three years are crucial for language development, then these first four months are also part of this important timeline for the optimal development of speech. Van de Rijt and Plooij (1992) have included in their seminal work ‘The Wonder Weeks’ that ‘Mothers knew all along that newborns love to look at faces, although it is true that vision is the last sense to reach full capacity. Your newborn can see most clearly up to a distance of about a foot’. Imagine the extra visual stimulation that your child is receiving by being worn ‘close enough to kiss’ for sometimes hours on end in a baby carrier, wrap of sling!
Whilst there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence regarding babywearing and an increase in early speech and language development, more research is needed into this area. There are many small studies that we can endeavour to extrapolate information from but as one very intelligent woman once told me, ‘You are the expert on your child’. There is no book or study in the world written specifically about your child. The current research gives us a clear indication that babywearing is definitely a prime factor in enhancing the rich auditory and visual learning environment for our children. But most importantly remember to listen to your child. They are communicating with us right from the very beginning and, by acknowledging these communications we provide them with the knowledge that their inputs are meaningful and that we provide them with the respect they deserve.
Golinkoff, R. M & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2000) ‘How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life’ Plume, London.
Hunkziker, U. A. and Barr, R. G. (1986) ‘Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomized controlled trial’ Pediatrics, Vol. 77, pp. 641-648.
Sears, W and Sears, M. (2001) ‘The Attachment Parenting Book – a Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nuturing your Baby’ Little, Brown & Company, New York.
Topping, K. Dekhinet, R & Zeedyk , S. (2013) ‘Parent–infant
interaction and children’s language development’, Educational Psychology, 33:4, 391-426, DOI:10.1080/01443410.2012.744159
Van de Rijt, H & Plooij, F (1992) ‘The Wonder Weeks’ Kiddy World Promotions, Arnhem.
Zeedyk, S. (2008). ‘Wha’ts life in a baby buggy like? Interaction and infant stress.’ London: National Literacy org.uk/talktoyourbaby/