Link Seen Between Babies' Sight, Language Development

Researchers at the University of Washington recently set out to examine the link between babies' early eye contact and their language development. Their study, which appears in the current issue of Developmental Science, pinpoints the time between 10- to 11-months as crucial.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Next, we hear about research that links babies' early eye contact with their later language development. Reporter Michelle Trudeau tells us that a study appearing in the current issue of Developmental Studies pinpoints how this connection emerges.

MICHELLE TRUDEAU reporting:

Researchers at the University of Washington videotaped babies to try and capture an important transition in infants' social development. When is it that babies begin to follow the direction of another person's gaze? Psychologist Rechele Brooks and Andrew Meltzoff studied about a hundred babies, nine-month-olds, 10-month-olds and 11-month-olds. In a quiet room at the university's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, Brooks would sit at a table across from a baby who'd be on Mom's lap. Down at each end of the table, there was a bright plastic toy.

Ms. RECHELE BROOKS (Researcher, University of Washington): So I would look at the baby. The baby would be looking at me. And once I had established eye contact, that's when I took that moment to turn to the side.

TRUDEAU: Turning her head to the left or right, looking at one of the toys on the table. When Brooks did this, she sometimes had her eyes open but sometimes she shut her eyes just before she turned her head in the direction of the toy.

Ms. BROOKS: Nine-month-olds were consistently looking at the toy whether my eyes were open or closed. They did not really care. They seemed to be following my head motion rather than whether I can make eye contact with the toy or not.

TRUDEAU: Now bring in the 10-month-olds, same test, very different results.

Ms. BROOKS: Ten-month-olds, they're going to look at the toy with me much more often when my eyes are open than when my eyes are closed.

TRUDEAU: So just 30 days later and babies will typically start to lock on to your eyes to discover an object. Now Brooks also recorded if the babies made any vocal sounds at the moment they looked at the toy with her. She and the moms were completely quiet. Here again the nine-month-olds didn't vocalize but the 10- and 11-month-old babies did.

(Soundbite of baby)

Ms. BROOKS: It's as if the baby goes, `Uh-huh, we're looking at the same thing,' and they seem to be making an extra connection.

(Soundbite of baby)

TRUDEAU: And that extra connection pays off later on. These little vocalizations made specifically when looking at the toy with Brooks are linked to later language development.

Ms. BROOKS: When children make that extra connection, when they're looking at the same toy as the adult but they also go, `Hmm,' that little extra vocalization, those kids are the ones that end up being more advanced with their language development.

TRUDEAU: Understanding twice as many words at 18 months as the babies who did not make those little sounds eight months earlier. So it's the two behaviors coupled together at 10 and 11 months, first following a person's eyes and then vocalizing upon seeing the toy that powerfully predicts later language comprehension. Developmental researcher Peter Mundy from the University of Miami calls this important milestone joint attention.

Mr. PETER MUNDY (Developmental Researcher, University of Miami): Watch how your baby begins to follow your gaze, and when they do follow, pay attention to that and respond to that because that's a fundamental building block for language and social relatedness. And the more you can encourage it, the more fun you're going to have with your infant and it may also have a benefit for their early development, as well.

TRUDEAU: Because it indicates, says Mundy, that your baby is beginning to understand your point of view and your intentions, essential early ingredients for a baby in becoming socially aware of other people.

For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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