The importance of having conversations with your toddler - even if they can't answer you properly

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Chatting away to your toddler (and dying with cute at their made up words) is probably something you find yourself doing naturally. But now, science is confirming that it could actually make your kids smarter.

A new study, published in the journal Pediatricsfound that kids of parents who had conversations with their little ones (rather than just talking at them) between 18 and 24 months of age had better language skills and a higher IQ when they reached primary school.

"It's incredible that we are able to measure the relationship between the experiences of babies and their cognitive skills ten years later," said lead author Dr. Jill Gilkerson. "It strongly supports what other research has shown: talk with babies may make a huge difference in their futures and there is a need to begin early, since parents' talk habits in the 18-24-month window start forming from the moment the baby is born."

For the first phase of the study, Dr Gilkerson and her team collected daily audio recordings from the families of 329 children aged between two and 36 months of age. Recordings spanned a six-month period and were later analysed for the total number of adult words kids were exposed to, how much children spoke, and how many turn-taking interactions they had during the day. In phase two, the children, who were now school-aged, completed follow-up language and IQ tests. 

Results showed that the number of turn-taking conversations occurring in the narrow window between 18 and 24 months was linked to higher IQ, verbal comprehension, and expressive and receptive language skills when kids were aged nine to 13 years old. And while adult word count also had an impact, it was those to-and-forth conversations with little ones that really mattered. 

"With these findings, we underscore the need for effective early intervention programs that support parents in creating an optimal early language learning environment in the home," the authors write.

It's important to note that the results are only correlational and cannot prove causation. In addition, only a small sample of the children were from a lower socioeconomic status. Despite these limitations, however, the authors believe their study has important implications - for parents and policy.

It's a conclusion reinforced by paediatricians Dr Alan Mendelsohn and Dr Perri Klass, who were not involved in the study, in a commentary published alongside the research in Pediatrics. "By showing that parent-child verbal interactions in early childhood predict critically important outcomes... the authors of this study have made a major contribution to this topic," they write, adding that parents can use play and reading aloud to create opportunities for enriched vocabulary and interactions.

So the next time you feel a little silly having a "conversation" with your young toddler, remember that these little early chats can go a long way.