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Animal Plays

By Scott Hamilton, MD
February 17, 2022
Hamilton Blog Headshot Updated 12.21.21

When my kids were in elementary school, I’d stage “Animal Plays” at bedtime, depicting the kids’ stuffed animals as them, and play-act their nighttime foibles. Like when my son would loudly announce from his bed, “I have to go to the bathroom!” My wife and I would yell back, “So go!” He’d run down the hall, feet thudding, go, flush and thump back. Re-enacting this with stuffed animals, me providing the dialogue and sound effects, had the kids killing themselves laughing.

These plays evolved from reading with my kids at bedtime. From earliest infancy, we’d read books before lights out while looking at the pictures together and talking about the illustrations and story. This makes good sense when your kids can talk and interact, so they learn words, how to read and get quality time with you. Of course, story time with books is also a good way to get kids to wind down and go to sleep. But reading and showing infants pictures: is this necessary? It turns out this is crucial for babies’ language acquisition, intelligence formation and future school performance.

In her book “Thirty Million Words,” Dr. Dana Suskind reviewed research showing that kids who hear more words as infants and toddlers grow more able brains. The original study posited that children from wealthier families did better in school and were more successful because they heard about thirty million more words than kids from impoverished families. While the reasons for gaps in school and economic success between rich and poor are far more complex, more talking to babies is an easy way to help close the gap. It’s clear that kids who get bedtime reading, and sleep better as a result, do better in school, are less angry and depressed and (for my benefit) stay out of the ER more!

Talking to babies while examining them is a happy part of my work. When you get 18 inches from a baby’s face and start talking, baby’s face lights up–eyes widen, eyebrows go up and baby starts interacting back. She will coo, smile and try lots of other facial expressions. 18 inches is the distance babies see best; it's that far to mother’s face when she’s nursing. Also, Dr. Robert Fantz, who began research on baby perception in the 1960s, noticed that his study assistant got better reactions from babies than himself, seemingly because the assistant had a bushy mustache and eyebrows. Frantz thus tested pictures of exaggerated facial features on babies and found they react more to face-like patterns than random designs. Babies automatically watch, and react to, human faces.

More recent science shows that, during these interactions, not only do babies’ faces light up, but their brains do as well. Scans of brain metabolism during interactions demonstrate that the more infants are talked to, with more varied words, the more their brains grow in complexity and functionality. However, many people are uncomfortable talking to kids; ‘What do you say to a baby?”

It turns out, say anything! Talk about your work, the laundry, what’s cooking. It’s less important what you say than how you’re saying it. Babies respond to “parentese,” the higher-pitched voice, with inflection (the “sing-song” of speech), and they try to imitate. The book “Thirty Million Words,” mentioned above, lays out rules for this talk. First, Tune In, meaning turn off TVs and phones and get kids’ attention. Second, Talk More: more and bigger words. Finally, Take Turns: give babies and children turns to respond and practice interacting. This talk particularly happens with bedtime story reading and is crucial for kids’ intelligence. Talking to babies isn't just fun, it's important too.

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