Surprise, Surprise! Babies Understand More Than We Think


Speech and language can be a very tricky part of a child’s development and something that my family has been struggling with for many years. I’ve always paid close attention to my children’s development, while trying not to overthink milestones they’ve missed or fallen behind on. I followed the baby and toddler milestones, the pediatrician’s guidance, and gladly received advice from friends and family when it came to our children’s language development. I know for our two boys, one important thing we did was to make sure we were doing our best to talk to our children. Whether it was pointing things out as we went about our day or described the chores we were doing at the moment, whatever opportunity we found, we were always talking!

Do Babies Understand Us?

At the time, I didn’t realize just how important and effective it was for us to start talking to our kids at a young age. While there has been previous research showing that babies understand common nouns at 6 months, a new study shows they understand those words much more than we thought. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), discovered that 6-month-old babies also recognize that the meanings of some words, like car and stroller, are more similar than others, like car and juice.

Through the PNAS study, researchers utilized eye tracking (reflecting infrared light off the baby's eyes) in order to track an infant's visual perspective when sitting in their parent’s lap while watching a video of various common objects. What they concluded was the babies had a harder time visually connecting objects that were closely related, like milk and juice. When two pictures were related, the babies spent more time looking at them, however when the two pictures were unrelated, like milk and foot, the babies spent less time looking at them. The babies' knowledge of the words correlated with the amount of time they heard people talking about the objects around them.

“The results of this study also indicate that a 6-month-old is starting to be able to categorize, which is an extremely important skill when it comes to language development and future learning. The baby knows that hat and car are very different (not in the same category) so it is easy to distinguish between which word was said. However, when the baby hears hat and coat it becomes more of a challenge to know which item is which because they are both in the category of clothing.” explains Tanya Thibodeau, former pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist turned blogger at Seeme and Liz.

So, when our children are contemplating between two related objects, they are just processing and taking it all in. In time, those babies will be able to make the deeper connection and differentiate between common, related and unrelated objects. In the meantime, it is our job to guide them with a little love, patience and the steps to grow in their further language development.

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Help Your Baby Learn to Talk

What can you do to get your baby to begin a successful path to developing their language skills? Thibodeau offers some simple suggestions and advice:

  1. Start talking to your baby right from birth.

  2. Narrate everything you do!

  3. Show your baby what you are talking about.

And from personal experience, it is never too late to start talking to your child or working with them to better help them. My eldest went to speech therapy for a year when he was 5-years-old and as we worked with him and his speech therapist we knew ‘better late than never’ was very true. Now, with our 20-month-old son, who is limited to less than a handful of words, we are better prepared to jump in and work with him. We’ve got this!

“It's great that studies like this are being done as they will help to show how important early intervention can be for babies/children at risk,” says Thibodeau. My family couldn’t agree more.

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About Jennifer Salazar Hutcheson

Jennifer Salazar Hutcheson is a Latina mami that was born and raised in New York, relocated to Georgia -where she fell in love with the South- and currently calls North Carolina home. She shares her parenting adventures with her best friend/husband, ...

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