I was reading this really fascinating article in the New York Times last night about new super-early (meaning, in infancy) therapeutic interventions for babies who appear to be showing signs of autism, and it got me to thinking about how babies learn to talk. The article quoted an expert who explained why parent-infant “conversation” is so critical to babies’ emotional and intellectual development. From the article:
“While the causes of autism are still a mystery, scientists agree that it has some genetic or biological trigger. Experimental treatments like Infant Start are intended to address the social environment the baby grows up in, and to see whether changes at home might alter the biological development of the condition once triggered.
“Experiences shape babies’ brains in a very physical way,” Ms. Rogers said. “Experience carves synapses; some are built, some are dissolved.”
If a baby starts focusing on objects instead of faces, the theory goes, a “developmental cascade” can begin: brain circuits meant for reading faces are used for something else, like processing light or objects, and babies lose their ability to learn the emotional cues normally taught by watching facial expressions. The longer a baby’s brain runs this developmental course, the harder it becomes to intervene.”
This is truly fascinating to me. It makes me realize that even for babies who are not showing any signs of autism or another developmental disorder, every interaction parents and caregivers and siblings have with that baby – every time they are able to elicit a smile, giggle or an “ah-goooo” noise from the baby – the baby’s brain is literally being shaped. And the opposite is also true; babies who are ignored and not encouraged to be interactive with other humans can be irreparably harmed before they even reach early childhood.
While this article focused on the babies’ end of the parent-infant conversation, it’s a good reminder why it’s so important to provide effective support and treatment for mothers with depression or other mental health or behavioral issues. When a mom feels really blue or exceptionally distressed and distracted, it makes it far less likely that she will initiate interactive “conversation” with her baby – or even notice and respond when the baby initiates it.
Baby G has become incredibly interactive and conversational with her father, siblings and me just in the past few weeks. Now you can smile at her and she beams back at you, and if you make certain sounds, like “ma” or “gah,” she tries very hard to reciprocate. If I stick my tongue out at her, she sticks her tongue out at me. And of course, the more responses I am able to get from her, the more motivated I am to keep trying for more. In fact, when we have these volleys back and forth of smiles and noises, we’re having a conversation; she’s “talking” to me and I’m encouraging her to keep at it. I’ve been absolutely loving these mama-baby chats, and thanks to that NYT article, I have been reminded that not only are they fun for me, they’re really important for her still very plastic, developing brain.
PS: Check out these incredible photos my friend Blair took of newborn Baby G. I just got them back from Blair, and I love them!
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