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Baby Literacy – Nothing Beats Quality Face Time

Jean Fahey

We’ve known for a long time that babies are listening for the voices of the important people around them. Talking, singing and reading bonds babies and parents in a profound way. This bond, in turn, strengthens the neural pathways in the brain that are later used for learning to read.

But babies are not just listening for speech sounds. They are also looking for speech sounds.

Sometime around 6 months, babies begin to shift from watching their parents’ eyes to watching their parents’ mouths move while they talk. They are looking to connect speech sounds with the shape of the speaker’s mouth. All senses tuned, they are highly motivated to communicate.

Once they have heard the same speech sounds over and over again (by about 12 months), they resume eye gazing with their parents and others. Eye gazing helps them pick up additional non-verbal communications present in the eyes of the speaker. However, if an important adult introduces an unfamiliar speech sound (i.e., from another language), the new sound will beckon baby’s eyes back to the speaking mouth where she will resume her study of how sounds look on the lips. This astonishing ability is one reason it is so easy for babies to become bilingual.

The study can be found in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lewkowicz, D.J. & Hansen-Tift, A.M., (2012) Infants deploy selective attention to the mouth of the talking face when learning speech, Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences.

Lewkowicz’s research also underscores the notion that if quality face time is so important for speech development and communication, then parents may want to tread carefully in exposing their infants and toddlers to too many videos during toddlerhood.

Instead, baby researchers tell us to look children in the eyes and tell a story. Or, pick up a cereal box, a recipe, or a book and read to children face-to-face.

Quality face time with infants and toddlers is one of the underlying themes of a hot-off-the-press South Shore Hospital sponsored book, Make Time for Reading: a story guide for parents of babies and young children.

What makes Make Time for Reading unique is that it looks like a children’s picture book but it is designed for parents. The book takes only minutes to read, yet it is packed with useful information against a backdrop of the story of one little girl’s journey toward reading.

So remember, when you do read and talk to your baby, be face to face with them to make it as easy as possible for them to learn to communicate … by imitating you!

As a community benefit, hard cover copies of “Make Time for Reading” are offered free of charge to mothers and newborns, and at South Shore Hospital Reading Partnership parent and teacher education seminars. It will be also available for purchase on Amazon in the fall of 2013.

(originally published at