Families & the Community

New Studies Zero In On Infant,Toddler Language Development

By Julie Rasicot — October 11, 2012 2 min read
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Babies’ development of language was in the news this week, thanks to two recent studies.

One study by researchers at the United Kingdom’s University of Hertfordshire suggests that communicating with your baby by sign language may help both of you understand each other better, but it isn’t likely to accelerate language development.

And another study found that treating maternal depression with common antidepressants can positively affect how babies develop language, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada, Harvard University, and the Child & Family Research Institute at British Columbia Children’s Hospital.

Advocates of teaching babies to use signs have long suggested that the method may encourage language development. But the researchers at the University of Hertfordshire say that’s not what they found after conducting a controlled study that followed 40 infants from 8 months to 20 months of age and monitored their interactions with their mothers. For the study, half of the mothers were trained to model a specific set of gestures to their children. Researchers then tracked the babies’ development.

“Although babies [learned] the gestures and used them to communicate long before they started talking, they did not learn the associated words any quicker than the nongesturing babies, nor did they did they show enhanced language development,” said Liz Kirk, who led the team of researchers. The study was published last week in the journal Child Development.

The study did find that mothers who used gestures to communicate with their babies were “more responsive to their infants’ nonverbal cues and encouraged more independent action” by their kids, according to the study abstract.

Meanwhile, the researchers studying maternal depression discovered that treating the illness with serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a type of antidepressant, can “accelerate babies’ ability to attune to the sounds and sights of their native language, while untreated maternal depression can prolong the period of tuning,” according to a news release from the University of British Columbia. This study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This study is among the first to show how maternal depression and its treatment can change the timing of language development in babies,” said study senior author Janet Werker of the university’s psychology department. “At this point, we do not know if accelerating or delaying these milestones in development has lasting consequences on later language acquisition, or if alternate developmental pathways exist. We aim to explore these and other important questions in future studies.”

Researchers studied three groups of moms: those with depression who were taking medication, those with depression who weren’t treated, and those who weren’t suffering from depression. Then they measured how babies responded to sounds and videos of language—by monitoring heart rate and eye movement—at ages 6 months and 10 months. They also studied the heart rates of unborn babies at 36 weeks as they responded to languages, according to the university.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.