Improving Babies’ Language Skills Before They Start to Talk


Playing a series of sounds when babies are four months old speeds up the way they process language; how babies respond to the sounds can also predict which infants will have trouble with language as well.

The first few months of a baby’s life come with a miriad of challenges on a still-developing brain. Sights, sounds, smells and touches as well as other emotional experiences flood in, waiting to be processed and filed away as the foundation for everything from language to emotions and how to socialize with others.

Neuroscientist April Benasich and her colleagues from Rutgers University found that if things are not finding their right place in the brain during these critical months, it results in developmental delays later on. The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Genetic factors play a role, but 10% of the babies Benasich has studied had no family history of developmental problems, yet still showed language trouble when they started talking. Benasich studied the brain maps of healthy babies before they learned to speak. These routes show how infants detect and respond to sounds in their environment—from words spoken to them to the humming of a dishwasher. In these early months, their brains are primed to sort out this cacophony of auditory stimuli and begin making more refined distinctions between them. Doing so requires distinguishing between tiny differences, both in the sounds themselves and in frequencies. “Babies do this naturally; they want to be able to pick sounds out quickly and figure out whether they need to pay attention to them,” says Benasich.


The babies in this study were adorned with skull caps studded with electronic sensors that drew a map of their EEGs as they were presented with different, non-linguistic tones. Some of the babies were played sounds that changed ever so slightly, such as in their tone or frequency, and whenever there was a change, a small video in the corner of a screen they were looking at popped up. The babies naturally turned to watch the video, so the scientists used these eye turns as a signal that the babies had heard and recognized the transition in sounds, and were expecting to see the video. Another group of babies were played the same sounds but without the video training, and a control group didn’t hear the sounds at all.

It wasn’t the sounds themselves that were important, but the changes in them that were key to priming the babies’ brains. Those who were trained to pay attention to the changes in the sounds, for example, showed more robust mapping of language sounds later on when they started to babble; by 18 months, these infants showed brain mapping patterns similar to those in two year olds. The babies who only listened to the sounds without the training fell somewhere between these two groups when it came to their language mapping networks.

The training was minimal — the babies’ parents brought them in for six to eight minute sessions once a week for about six weeks. Yet Benasich was “surprised by how robust the effects are for the babies.”

Benasich is working on developing her test into a parent-friendly toy that parents can buy and use with their babies; if their babies are developing normally, then the training can only accelerate and enhance their language skills later on. For those who are struggling, the training could help them to avoid learning disabilities when they start school. It’s not possible to screen every baby, but if parents and doctors are able to take advantage of such a tool, then she hopes that more language-based disorders might be avoided.

Singing to babies while massaging has all these elements – the babies hear the rhythmic, pleasant sound, and look at their parent who is smiling; according to this study, they will have more advanced brain-mapping of language sounds. In this study, the babies had six to eight minute sessions, once a week and had “robust effects.”

“Babies naturally do this, but for those who are having trouble, we are guiding them to pay more attention to things that are important in their environment, such as language-based sounds,“ she says.

“We think we could make a huge difference in the number of kids who end up with learning problems.”

– Vimala McClure