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Can Listening to Music Help Babies Talk Earlier?

Photograph by Twenty20

If you've been wondering if shelling out big bucks for a baby music class would be worth it or if singing "Wheels on the Bus" for the umpteenth time is doing anything for your baby, wonder no more. A new study out of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) has found a strong link between rhythmical musical experiences and speech development in young infants.

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Researchers at I-LABS studied 39 nine-month-olds who attended 12- to 15-minute play sessions at the lab. Twenty of them were assigned to a music play group where an instructor played children's music and had the parents and babies tap out beats in time with the music. The other 19 kids in the other play group didn't have any musical experiences—they just played with toys.

After each play session, researchers scanned the babies' brains while having them listen to music and speech sounds which would intermittently be interrupted. They discovered that babies in the music play group had a stronger response to the disruption in their prefrontal cortex and auditory cortex—which are important for cognitive skills like paying attention and figuring out patterns.

So what does this mean?

Like music, language has a lot of rhythmic patterns, and the ability to differentiate these patterns is part of what helps babies learn to talk. According to lead author Christina Zhao, "This result suggests that experiencing a rhythmic pattern in music may improve the ability to detect and make predictions, a cognitive skill important to speech processing as well."

Zhao tells CBS News, "We know that actively engaging in language interaction can help them learn words more quickly. And here we demonstrated that actively participating in music may be another important experience that can influence infants' brain development and help them learn."

Researchers hope the study could have impacts on public education as well.

Co-author Patricia Kuhl says, “Schools across our nation are decreasing music experiences for our children, saying they are too expensive. This research reminds us that the effects of engaging in music go beyond music itself. Music experience has the potential to boost broader cognitive skills that enhance children’s abilities to detect, expect and react quickly to patterns in the world, which is highly relevant in today’s complex world.”

So, the next time Baby is enthusiastically banging on her drums, think of all the brain development that's happening and hum away, Mama.

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