As I have completed my Bachelor’s in Child Development and Family Science with Psychology as a Minor, I have learned a wide array of information. Something that has been on the forefront of my experience this summer (and last semester) has been children and their acquisition of language. I have been independently working with a speech pathologist and learning numerous things, however there are a few things that stand out. Right now I am going to focus on the direct connection I see between Attachment Parenting (AP) tactics as a strong support for helping a child develop strong speech skills.
For our MotherWise audience, many of you are aware of what AP is and how it can attribute to increased language skills. However, I shall still point out a few definitions in case any reader is new to the idea of AP. I will also connect some dots so we can see how attachment parenting is a good foundation for speech development.
Attachment Theory is a theory that was introduced by psychologist John Bowlby in the early 1940s. It is based on the idea that children have natural instincts that should be considered and respected particularly between mother’s and infants. Bowlby had a colleague Mary Ainsworth who noticed that emotionally available caregiver’s contribute to attaining a Secure attachment with their child(ren). This secure attachment provides reassurance, comfort, and protection for the child as well as demonstrates the availability of the parent. (p 10).
If a person delves into Child Development or Psychology they will see time and again how children who formed a Secure Attachment in the beginning of their lives fair better in many facets of their life. A large component of having a secure attachment is the decrease of Stress. Babies who have a safe person to attach to and be their rock for their first few years (and thereafter, but in an evolved way as the child ages) are able to handle stressors in a more effective way. This decrease in stress and management of stress continues throughout their lives. With how many adults are in stressful situations, this is a great thing to attain from the beginning of life! In addition this decrease in stress allows the baby to use their energy for growth, development and learning. This decrease in stress has also been shown to show to “reduce mental health problems in later development (2).”
It is this decrease in stress, combined with overall parental responsiveness (the big component of AP), which creates a good foundation for a child’s brain organization for speech development. If a baby is being worn or is held up at the adult’s level throughout the day instead of sitting down on the ground or somewhere else, the baby is talked to more, gets to see the adult’s facial movements and is in a safe place so the incoming input from the environment can be processed more easily. Allow me to elaborate on these components.
Dr. William and Martha Sears are well known for spreading the word about AP. In their book The Attachment Parenting Book, they specifically point out that “normal ambient sounds, such as the noises of daily activities, may either have learning value for him or disturb him.” They elaborate by showing how if a child is held or carried, in a wrap or carrier, the child is in a safe place and noises can be filtered by the caregiver to allow the baby to learn from the noises and be reassured. The opposite of this is if they were alone (on the ground or farther away from parents) and startled or exposed to a noise. The child then has to first figure out if the noise is going to bring them harm before allowing the sound to be a learning tool. It makes sense, that if a baby or child is in a safe place they can use their energies and attention to focus on ways to learn and grow versus defend.(1)
Another point the Sears’ make is that “sling babies talk better.” They become more attentive. Being up at eye and voice level involves baby in the conversation and teaches listening skills. (1)
A big component of being at the same level of the child that Jeannine Herron, Ph.D., points out is how babies are in a development phase of using their mirror neurons to learn. Why is this important? Because “Babies are using the mirror neurons in their brains to soak up action information about how to respond to their environment. It’s important for babies to watch your face as you talk, because they learn from watching your mouth and facial expressions-their mirror neurons are firing away, mimicking what they see.” (p37).
The other piece of AP that I briefly mentioned is that the child is talked to more when they are at the adult’s level. With AP this communication continues throughout life. AP parents are continually talking to their children, listening to their cues and discussing what, why, where, and how things are happening or could happen. This dialogue lasts forever, including through gentle parenting guidance techniques as the child ages. Now we have already seen how this communication on their level assists with mirroring as a baby, but beyond that is the importance of using a lot of words as well as words of encouragement versus discouragement. Back in 1995 two researchers from University of Kansas did vocabulary research on children, counting their verbal experiences for two and a half years. They found great differences between children of “professional” parents and those on “welfare” which was linked with how many utterances (words or complex phrases) were spoken to the child every hour, as well as if those utterances were encouraging or discouraging. The children of the “professional” parents were found to have more than double the size vocabularies of the “welfare” group and the “professional” parents were speaking an average of 487 at their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour. And by the age of 3 years old children of professionals had heard 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. Welfare children, by contrast, had heard 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. (3).
Now, I bring up this study because, despite the fact that Socioeconomic Status (SES) has been found to be related to speech skills in many different research scenarios, I feel that it is more important to look at what we can do to improve situations for our youth regardless of SES. Applying AP principals would help any person give their child a heads up on language development whether that parent was on welfare or living in a mansion. The main point: let’s carry our babies and talk to them regularly, as the people that they are, throughout their entire lives; it is This which will improve their speech development skills from those very beginning moments.
Speaking of the beginnings of life, the brain’s development during the first three years is the next vital piece to improving speech/reading skills for our children.
Here I am going to share an excerpt from Making Speech Visible by Jeannine Herron, Ph.D.:
“It appears that by the time children attend school, it may be too late to make a significant difference academically. The human brain develops its faculties for language-and for using language to pursue natural curiosity and process information- in the first three years of life. So the most important period is when children are at home or daycare, Before they attend school. Researchers from many disciplines have clearly shown that the developing brain is profoundly influenced not only by a physically nurturing environment but also a mentally nurturing one. Babies’ brains are designed to soak up language, and the critical period for this mental nourishment is in the first three years of life. A baby’s brain literally doubles in size during that period. There is no other such amazing growth spurt in human development. A three year old burns glucose in her brain at twice the rate of a 20 year old. By age 4 her brain size and weight is 90% of what it will be when she’s 20. By age 5 she will know between 3,000 and 8,000 words (p35-36).”
The practices of AP assist with optimal development particularly in the language domain (5), and cognitive performance (6), as well as the decrease in stress. Children who are faced with more stress create more cortisol, which can affect their brain responses (4).
I hope this has helped connect some dots between AP and how we, as parents, can help our children get off to the right start with language. My follow up to this includes other ways we can help our children’s brain organize language so that they can have an easier (and more fun) time learning to read and use language in that next phase of language acquisition. There are some little tricks we can do to promote proper wiring of their brain! Keeping in mind how these developments begin in those first three years of life makes it imperative that Parents have this information Before children are in school.
3: Herron, Jeannine. (2011). Making Speech Visible: How Constructing Words Can Help Children Organize Their Brains for Skillful Reading. Talking Fingers Publications. San Rafael, CA.