Parent-child interaction is crucial to brain development. An important part of that interaction is what is said while we’re engaging with our child — not just the words we use, but the frequency of those words and the way in which they are offered up.
Jessica Rolph welcomes Dr. Dana Suskind to today’s episode to talk about the reasons why a language-rich environment is so important and to best achieve one. Dr. Suskind is the author of Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain and she is releasing a new book in April called Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child’s Potential, Fulfilling Society’s Promise.
[1:36] Dana talks about her path from surgeon to public health advocate.
[3:03] How nurturing words contribute to the development of an infant’s brain.
[4:15] An overview of the Thirty Million Words study, the impetus behind Dana’s first book.
[6:45] How can parents help develop a nurturing experience while talking to their infants? Dana and her team developed 3 Ts: Tune in, Talk more, and Take turns.
[9:05] How can parents prioritize language in the face of so much streaming?
[10:25] Cooing and goofy exchanges with your baby have a critical role to play as catalysts. Dana explains why.
[12:23] The distinction between overheard speech and speech directed to the child.
[13:16] Dana talks about Parent Nation, a book that pictures a society that puts children and families at the center, that values the important work that parents and caregivers do every day.
[16:08] Most of this country believes in the power of family, parents, and caregivers, but they don’t look at one another as allies or as a collective whole. Dana and her team want to change that.
Mentioned in this episode:
Importance of language-rich interactions
Jessica: So, your path from surgeon to public health advocate is so interesting. Can you share that with our listeners?
Dana: It sounds funny to say, but the path began in the operating room. As you know, I’m a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon. And a cochlear implant is this amazing piece of technology that allows a child born deaf the ability to hear, to talk, and most importantly to mainstream both educationally and socially. I started our cochlear implant program probably about 12 or 13 years ago, and I did that because I thought by giving children access to sound, it could change their lives. And pretty soon after starting the implant program though, I started seeing huge differences in outcomes amongst my patients. Some of them would learn to talk and learn on par with their hearing peers. Others, same time out, would barely be able to communicate. It was a really painful difference to see. And honestly, Jessica, it was that difference that pushed me out of the operating room to try to understand why this was, and more importantly, what I could do about it. What was amazing… What I found was this incredibly rich research about early brain development. I learned that those first three years of life, the first three to five years of life are critically important for early brain development. Some 90% of the brain is basically grown in those first few years of life. And you know what grows it? It’s that nurturing talk and interaction that you mentioned, between mother or father or loving caregiver and child. That’s it. Those language-rich interactions fuel those neural connections. Some one million neural connections every second occur. And that is building the foundations for all thinking and learning. So you could ask me, “Well, how does that relate to you? You’re a cochlear implant surgeon dealing with children with hearing loss.” Well, what it turned out was that some of my patients, even though I gave them access to sound, the reason it wasn’t unlocking all the potential was they didn’t have that rich early language environment to listen to. And it was that, that really pushed me to understand that all parents want the best for their children. All parents have within them the powerful talk and interaction to build their children’s brains. What parents needed were the knowledge and the tools and the support to make that happen.
Thirty million word study
Jessica: And so in 2015, you wrote this book called Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain. So for parents who are new to this concept, can you tell us a little bit more about this Thirty Million Word study?
Dana: Yeah. And before I even tell you about that study, you could say, “Why did you write a book?” Well, I figured if this powerful brain science pulled a surgeon out of the operating room, even though I still operate every week, and inspired her to understand how powerful parents are. Well certainly, I wanted the entire country, the entire world to understand how powerful and important parent talk and interaction was. And so the name of the book really came from this study done 30 plus years ago.
Which basically found that there was a large language exposure, what they call gap, between some children who are born into rich language homes and some who are not. And they found this gap that was… They said was 30 million words. And based on this exposure to language, according to this research, it predicted differences not just in vocabulary, but IQ and test scores. Now, I want to make it clear that it has never been about the quantity of language. And in truth, that first study is really just the first sentence in a robust literature that shows how important talk and interaction is.
Children need to be exposed to a lively stream of words every day to fuel those neural connections, and it’s both quantity and quality of words that stimulates the brain. It’s not just about number of words. And so in truth, Jessica, I’ve sort of distanced myself a little bit from that term, 30 million words, because I think it gives the wrong sort of message, it’s really about rich nurturing interaction.
Tune in, talk more and take turns
Jessica: I will admit, when I first learned about the 30 million-word study, I just started talking at my baby, and that’s… I was like, “Oh my gosh, this makes such a difference, I’m just going to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.” And never really did that pausing for the back and forth. You break down a child’s language environment into three components, the words the child hears, how many they hear, which we’re talking about right now, this 30 million words being like a little bit of less relevant to the science today. And then how those words are said. Can you speak to the words a child hears, like how as parents can we put this into practice and help our child have this optimal development experience?
Dana: Absolutely. Well, I am a scientist, a neuroscientist, and if you really look at the research, there are so many different components. But what we did at the center, the TMW Center that I run at the University of Chicago, is we’ve culled it down to what we call the three T’s. Tune in, talk more and take turns. Tuning in is really tuning into your child’s interest, following your child’s lead, talking about what they’re focused on, using rich language, talking about the past, the future, the present. And then taking turns. As important as quantity and quality of the words are, it’s really engaging your baby in conversation, pausing, letting your child respond. And in fact, the science, the neuroscience has really shown that these conversations, even if your baby can’t use real words, it’s so powerful for stimulating those connections in the brain for happening.
Jessica: I loved learning that too, so that’s what I did with my second child. [laughter] My first child just got a lot of language, my second child got a lot more conversational turns, I’m speaking in research speak. But you also noted that maybe the fourth T should be turn it off. How can parents prioritize language in the face of so much streaming?
Dana: Well, I’ll tell you, as a physician who everyday interacts with amazing parents who love their children, I have seen a dramatic shift when I go into the clinics. 10 years ago, maybe there was a iPhone every once in a while, but everybody… People were more engaged. I walk in now, everyone from the nine-month-old to the parent is glued to the phone, and unfortunately the science, the neuroscience is pretty clear, babies don’t learn from technology, especially in those first few years of life. Now, am I going to say, you can’t use it? Of course not. But the truth is, is it’s really about harm reduction. Trying to stay off your phone, being engaged, and if you use technology, engaging around it with your child so if they’re playing with the tablet, interacting with them. But, yes, the turn it off, I think is becoming more and more of an issue.
Benefits of parentese
Jessica: You write that even cooing, like the, “mama loves you,” and “oh, so sweet,” and all of those sort of… Kind of the goofy things that we say, they have a critical role to play as catalysts. What is that role? Can you define that for us?
Dana: Absolutely. Well, I always joke that one of the biggest misconceptions out there is baby talk is no good. Now, I’m not talking about ga-ga, goo-goo, but that sing-songy, what we call Parentese voice is so critical in the early years for children’s learning. For their language learning, it’s how they start making sense of the language, of their native tongue and starts allowing them instead of hearing a continuous stream of sound, when you think about it, that’s what language is, it’s a continuous stream of sound, but that cooing actually helps children segment the sounds and understand and grow their vocabulary. So use that sing-songy voice and get everyone around you doing it. Some of my favorite stories of people that I interviewed for my different books, I remember this one dad, Randy, a big tough Marine, who was part of our program, and he talked about how he started using Parentese and getting on the floor and cooing and doing that sort of stuff. And his brother said, “Randy, what are you doing?” And he said, “I’m growing my baby’s brain.” Now that’s what makes your heart sing.
Jessica: The science is so clear that language really does make a difference in brain development, it really… It’s like the one, if you’re going to do one thing it’s this talking and having this back and forth interaction and really tuning into your child verbally that can make a difference. So I often wonder about languages overheard. So let’s say you’re on a conference call and your child is there or your baby is there, or you have got the radio on or a TV or something happening, or your child is watching something. Can you tell me if there’s any benefits to this overheard speech, rather than speech directed to the child?
Dana: Yeah, in truth, the research really shows that it’s child-directed speech that helps children learn language. It would be so great if background noise from the television and from parents talking on the phone helped children’s brains, but it’s really that child-directed speech that helps children learn language. We are basically social beings, and our brains respond to that sort of what we call responsive contingency. It’s not just talking at your child, but that interaction that’s so key.
What is Parent Nation?
Jessica: And so I want to now pivot to this new book that you’re writing. Can you tell us about Parent Nation?
Dana: Parent Nation really comes out of my first book and the work of the Center and the work that you all do. The fact that the neuroscience and the developmental science is so clear. Parents are children’s early brain architects, parents and caregivers. And in my own work, I worked with families across Chicago, across the US, who like all parents, wanted the best for their children. They embrace the three T’s, the tune in, talk more, take turns with gusto. They wanted what every parent wants, to help their children get off to the best start. But it was quite clear that while the three T’s were powerful, they only took parents so far. We’re seeing this today, real life intruded again and again and again, whether it be unpredictable work schedules, Zoom calls, multiple jobs, the lack of healthcare, homelessness. Real life would get in the way again and again, and parenting wasn’t done in a vacuum. And so I thought, here we live in this country and we say we care about our children, we care about families, but yet so many of our social norms and our different structures aren’t set up to support families and what they want to do most.
So Parent Nation is really a book about how do we… What does a society look like that really puts children and families at the center, that values the powerful and important work that parents and caregivers do every day, and how do we get there? So Parent Nation really lays it out. It’s almost a love letter to parents and caregivers, and it says, “You should not have to go it alone. You deserve support. You deserve community. And you deserve a society that supports you in building the next generation.”
Jessica: It’s such a beautiful vision, how can we engage? Well, we can get your book, what else? What else can we do to be a part of this movement that you’re building?
Dana: When I was writing this book, Parent Nation, COVID was just hitting. And I started talking to parents, beyond the families that we work with at TMW, from all walks of life, from all religious backgrounds, all political affiliations, and I heard the same stories again and again. All these parents loving their kids, dealing with sleepless nights, just wanting to do right by their children.
Most of this country believes in the power of family, believes in the power of parents and caregivers, but they don’t look at each other as allies, and they don’t look at themselves as a collective whole, pushing forward for a society that truly values children and families. And people said, “Oh, how can it be,” right? “We seem so siloed, so polarized.” And in my research, I found a story that I think can really give us hope. Some 50, 60 years ago, there was another age demographic that was struggling, struggling mightily. It was people over the age of 65, the elderly. At that time, they had no political voice, they had no retirement, no savings. 50% of them lived in poverty, believe it or not. And through the AARP, they came together as a unified voice from all different backgrounds, all different educations, races, and political affiliations. But they came together to push forward the things that matter to all of them, raising all of their boats, and fast forward today, 50 years later, and there is no group that is better supported and has more of a voice.
And I thought, You know what, parents can be that same thing. And so my dream, my dream is that we come together in small groups across the country, picking out what we can do in our own community to make it more family-friendly, whether it be the role of business as allies, the role of community, the role of policy, social norms, whatever it is, that we come together and little by little, we can shift this country that it truly becomes the family-friendly, child-centered country that I know it can be.
Jessica: I am so grateful to know about this and thankful for you for pulling all of this work together and pulling us together as parents, so really appreciate this conversation. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Dana: Oh, thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure.
For practical tips on how to create a language-rich environment for your baby and toddler, tune into My New Life episodes:
Baby talk: Learning your baby’s language with communication and play with Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
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