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Why Noisy Smart Toys Could Delay Your Child

Photograph by Twenty20

Parents often ask me how to promote language skills. Are certain board books better than others? Do they need to give a play-by-play of every single they do in the presence on an infant? Does background music help or hinder?

With the push for early reading comes a push for early language development. I always encourage parents to slow down. Kids hit milestones at different times. Yes, averages give us a starting point, but all babies are different. Counting words and searching for clues to language development can become stressful.

That said, it’s useful to understand what helps and what can potentially hinder language development. Most parents know that talking to babies is a great way to interact with them, even though the conversations are one-sided for quite some time. The question many parents ask, however, is how to lay the groundwork for language skills.

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A new study published in "Child Development" shows that too much background noise in a home or at school can make it difficult for toddlers to learn new words. For the study, researchers assessed the ability of toddlers to recall new words when learned in a quiet vs. noisy environment, and results showed that toddlers learned more effectively when background noise was reduced.

In a world full of gadgets and things (even toys) that make noise, this is important information. Modern homes come equipped with tons of distractions. It helps to take a look around and consider the sources of background noise that might interfere with development. Beyond trouble-shooting the distractions, it’s also important to consider what kinds of parent-child interactions contribute to language development. Research shows that low-income children hear 30 million fewer words on average.

But is the number of words infants hear critical to language development?

While some babies seem genuinely entertained by non-stop chatter, others need quiet time.

According to a new commentary by Meredith Rowe, associate professor and educational psychologist at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, the quality of talk infants hear also plays a role in language development. What does this mean for parents? Keep talking incessantly? Only talk when the words have substance? Cry over the mixed messages that sometimes make parenting seem more difficult than it once was?

Relax. The important takeaways from the research are this: Noise reduction and word quality help toddlers learn to communicate. Instead of worrying about the best board books or how to push early language skills, try these 4 things:

1. Understand your child’s personality

All kids are different, even when they’re infants. While some babies seem genuinely entertained by non-stop chatter, others need quiet time. You can determine the needs of your infant by watching for clues. Averted gaze, fussiness and crying are all good indicators that your baby needs a break.

Use a warm, calming voice when interacting with your child, and don’t feel like your toddler needs constant entertainment. Toddlers need time to play, explore and interact with the world around them on their own terms.

2. Read together

By the time your baby reaches toddlerhood, he or she will likely have a few favorite books that are falling apart from reading over and over again, but you don’t have to worry about finding the “best” books for babies. Build a small library of books and make time to sit in a quiet space and read together as often as possible.

Turn down the noise, both from your household and the toy bin, and make playtime more meaningful by interacting together in a quiet space.

Sure, reading helps language development, but it also provides time to increase the parent-child bond. That's a win-win, if you ask me.

3. Turn off the gadgets as much as possible

For my daughter’s first birthday, we were inundated with flashing, beeping, spinning toys. It was overwhelming—for both of us. I put those away for later and stuck to the wooden blocks and stacking cups. To this day, her favorite story is that the one “toy” she couldn’t live without at age 1 was a coffee mug!

Turn down the noise, both from your household and the toy bin, and make playtime more meaningful by interacting together in a quiet space. Babies don’t need bells and whistles and talking toys, the need time with their grownups to talk, listen and learn.

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4. Worry less

It’s hard not to worry about every little thing, when we are constantly bombarded with “new” and “better” information. The truth is that worry takes us away from what’s right in front of us. Worry can be the biggest distraction of all.

You know what your baby needs. You know how to soothe a tired toddler or help a fussy infant get back to sleep. You know your child best, and you can create a calming environment that helps your child thrive. Trust your gut when it comes to helping your toddler learn and grow.

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