I knew “a lot of” brain development happens during a child’s first few years of life—but I wasn’t aware how incredibly fast the process occurs. Considering that an infant’s brain doubles in size by the time they turn one, its newborn neurons are making, “at least one million new neural connections every second,” according to the child development agency First Things First, and a child’s brain is 90% fully developed by age five. This all means that how parents nurture their baby’s brain during those early years is critical.
According to Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon who studies child brain development, one of the best ways parents of little ones can aid this process is by providing a language-rich environment full of “serve-and-return interactions” and plenty of “talking, smiling, pointing, responding, singing, narrating your day” to help young kids develop cognitive skills such as reading, memory, and language, and soft skills like resilience.
Suskind recommends parents employ a simple “3Ts strategy” to foster strong connections: Tune in. Talk more. Take turns.
Tune in to your child
As parents, we are unfortunately often distracted by our jobs or household chores, even in the presence of our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. One of the best ways you can foster an optimal environment for a young child’s social development is by tuning in to what they are focused on, and building conversation around that.
Think of it as baby-led conversation (even if they can’t talk). Notice what they are watching or listening to; guide your own attention there, and start asking questions. If they’re entranced by a squirrel on the deck, you can say, “Are you looking at a squirrel? Wow that squirrel has such a fluffy tail!” Likewise, if their eyes perk up at the sound of a train: “Do you hear the train? Trains have loud whistles.” According to Suskind, “Your mission is to match the conversation with whatever is fascinating them in the moment.”
Talk, talk, and talk some more
Once you’ve tuned in to what’s captured your little one’s attention at any given moment, it’s time to flex that small talk muscle. Think of it as a freestyle poetry slam, where you can say just about anything you want related to the topic at hand. Use a rich variety of language to add words to a child’s memory bank and build their vocabulary. “Continue to engage them in conversation about it using diverse language that encourages focus and engagement,” says Suskind. For example, “Look at what that squirrel is doing. She’s standing on two legs. What is she eating? Is that an acorn? I bet she’s going to have a nap after this!”
(This reminds me of the time when, fresh out of ideas of how to entertain my six-month old after a long day of togetherness, I placed her on my hip, turned to the spice cabinet, and started reading labels, telling her what each spice was used for. It killed a good 5–10 minutes—which is a lot when you’re in that final countdown to bedtime. And hey, now she can properly pronounce cardamom.)
Take turns while talking
The best conversations are the ones where both parties are equally engaged—and that goes for even the tiniest of chat buddies. Whether they have a blossoming vocabulary, rudimentary words, or gurgles and finger pointing, it all counts. In the final step, “engage in back-and-forth conversation patterns by asking questions that encourage your child to describe the world around them or how they’re feeling.” Start with your own observations and emotions to encourage them to participate. “Wow, garbage trucks are so colorful. I see green. What colors do you see? Where do you think it’s going? It is so exciting when the garbage truck comes down our street!”
Why you should adopt the 3Ts strategy
This University of Chicago study showed that enriching the home language environment can enhance the quality of child-caregiver interactions. (“The utilized more praise, explanations, and open-ended questions but less criticism, physical control, and intrusiveness than their control counterparts when interacting with their child.”)
Parents can continue to use the 3Ts strategy long after their babies turn five to foster a lifetime of “serve-and-return” interactions. It requires no research, devices, or specialized training. Just a conscious effort to notice what’s got your child’s attention, put your verbal focus there, and start a conversation.
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