(CNN)This might sound strange, but I found talking to my dog much less stressful than talking to my babies. They had a lot in common: Both were non-verbal, both relied on me for their well-being, and both were in possession of what Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz called “baby schema.”
This is the combination of large head, round face and big eyes that we humans find irresistibly cute and motivates us to care for vulnerable and needy creatures.
The difference between dog and baby, though, is potential consequences. Nobody tells you how important it is to talk to your dog. Everybody tells you how crucial it is to talk to your baby.
According to the mountain of research on the importance of talking to babies and toddlers, the first three years of a child’s life are a period of rapid and expansive brain development. Talking to young children helps fire up the connections that will allow them to process language. The more words they hear, the stronger those connections get.
When there’s a lot at stake, performance anxiety tends to kick in. Do I have to be in constant narration mode when chatting with my 18-month-old, like a Warner Herzog of my own life? “Now, Mommy wets her toothbrush. Now, Mommy puts the toothbrush in her mouth …” Or is it OK to let it all unfold a bit more organically, including regular breaks for — dare I say it? — silence?
“Back and forth responsiveness” is the most important thing when talking to a baby or toddler, according to Alice Honig, professor emerita in the department of human development and family science at Syracuse University and co-author of “Talking With Your Baby.” “It’s about real intimate connection.”
For young babies, this means making a small “coo” sound and waiting, patiently, for the baby to make a “coo” in response. She said parents and caregivers should try this out early on, even if the baby doesn’t “coo” back right away.
“It sends them the message that ‘I’m important. Somebody is talking to me. I have to focus.’ Before one month, they can focus when we talk to them.”
Honig said that as babies mature, it is appropriate to move from “coos” to words to sentences. However, do not stop speaking in the kind of baby talk experts call “parentese.” This is that high-octave, musical, long-voweled “schmoopy” tone that we associate with affection.
Another important thing to remember is that even if children can’t speak yet, they can still communicate.
Honig noted the distinction between expressive language and receptive language. The former is being able to talk back. The latter is being able to understand what was said.
My 18-month-old’s expressive language skills are at an age-appropriate minimum. But his receptive language skills are not bad! The other day, my husband and I were talking about how it was time to…