Why talking to your baby matters

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Talking to your baby or toddler is among the most important things a parent can do. Years ago, University of Kansas researchers found there's a 30 million word gap. Children in poverty hear 30 million fewer words by age 4. Now K.U. is leading the way in bridging the gap nationally and locally.

"Who's that?" asked Richelle Parks, as she pointed to a photo of one of her children.

"Miley!" said her youngest child, Patience.

With six older siblings, Patience has names to remember. And at 22 months, she has language to learn from her big family.

"To just get away from the baby talk and thinking that's she's just always going to be little," said Parks.

She is getting help from Project Engage. Once a week, K.U. researchers visit 140 low income families to check on language development and offer suggestions for boosting it. Half the families also get text reminders such as "Driving in the car or waiting in line at the grocery story can be great times for conversation."

"The hope there is that that will extend the dosage or how much language children hear throughout the week," said Dr. Kathy Bigelow, a K.U. researcher with the Juniper Gardens Children's Project.

The findings will become a national model for bridging a shocking word gap. By age 4, children from low income families hear 30 million fewer words than children in well-off families.

Bigelow says the TV and the Internet are no substitute for parents talking to their babies during play and during tasks such as diapering.

"You can say, I'm lifting you or your leg up now. Our legs go down. We're gonna wipe," she said.

Bigelow says it's proven that kids who hear more language early have bigger vocabularies.

"They're more ready to read, they're more ready to learn," she said.

Patience's vocabulary is rising.

"It's exciting. It pushes her older sister who has autism to speak a little bit more," said Parks.

With more conversation, more success in school and life should follow.

K.U. researchers are directing the national "Bridging the Word Gap Network." The goal is to reduce the number of children entering school with delays in language and literacy.

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