A 'Sound' Approach to Help Babies Talk

By Bryan Sisk, MD

Many parents wait anxiously for their children's first words, all the while carrying a lingering fear that those words might not come. Now, new research could provide hope for these parents.

Researchers at Rutgers University say they may have found a way to strengthen language development in babies. They trained 4-month-old infants to focus on specific sounds that are important for language development. If the babies paid attention to these sounds, they were given a reward - in this case a cute video played on a screen in front of them.

As the babies played this "game" they wore electrodes on their heads, which tracked signs of language development in their brains.

The results were promising. Babies who were trained to focus on these sounds had better development in the language centers of their brains, the area where words are formed.

"All the kids in this study got a bump - some a little bit, some a lot," said Dr. April Benasich, lead author of the study and professor of neuroscience at Rutgers University. "We were actually surprised by the huge effect."

Language delay is a serious concern for many parents. Up to 8 percent of children experience speech and language difficulties by the time they start preschool, potentially leading to future problems with learning and behavior.

"Sometimes it can be devastating for parents," says Dr. Elizabeth Harstad, a developmental pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital who was not involved with the study. "As a parent, if you don't know the underlying reason for language delay, then you don't know what to expect for the future."

Benasich said she hopes her research will help to prevent some of these language problems before they start. "We've already started to work on a prototype which is sort of like a toy," she said. "Instead of saying, 'We'll just watch your baby, but we don't know what's going to happen,' we could send them home with this device."

The results of this study are promising, but preliminary. It is unknown if these benefits will lead to better language development in the long term. Benasich's team will follow these babies for another year to see if these language benefits last.

"We hope that this is going to have a real-world impact," she said.

Doctor's Take

Language development is an important problem for many children. Ideally, we would be able to prevent some of these language problems before they start. While this research is preliminary, it could possibly lead to new ways of protecting our children and empowering parents. If this new technology helps even a portion of children with language problems, that would be a major success.

In the meantime, if parents are worried about their children's language development, they should talk to their pediatrician. General pediatricians can screen for hearing and language development to pick up on problems and start interventions earlier. With developmental problems, the earlier that interventions are started, the better the results.