How much should you talk to your baby?

ABC news is running story about talking to your baby. They start with some alarming news: You may not be talking to your baby enough. How much you talk to your baby affects everything from school performance to IQ. They suggest that an optimal amount is 30,000 words per day. They even peddle a new device that will count how many words you say to your baby so that you know if you are hitting that magic 30,000, or even the “more realistic” 17,000.

Does it really matter how much you talk to your baby?

Maybe, maybe not. It is true that babies who are talked to more have higher IQ scores and do better in school. This is partly because smarter parents talk more to their kids, and smarter parents also tend to have smarter kids. It is also the case that middle- and upper-class parents talk to their kids more than do lower-class parents. This may be a factor in why lower-class children do worse in school, but it is probably not the only reason.

The problem is one of random assignment. We can’t assign some babies to hear a lot of speech and some babies to hear no speech. WIthout that, it is impossible to un-confound genetic and socio-economic factors. A very creative study might be able to do so, but I have not come across any such study, and the news piece doesn’t mention such research.

Nonetheless, it is certainly possible that talking to your baby makes a difference (even though in some cultures, parents do not talk to their children before the age of 2 or 3 and the children turn out fine). However, the 30,000 word rule almost certainly has to be fictitious. Assuming the baby is awake for 12 hours a day, that comes out to 42 words per minute nonstop every waking minute. I’m not sure I would want a parent who talked that much.

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