Words Matter

Published in St. Margaret’s Healthcare 2019/2020 Winter Issue of Healthy You Magazine

Pictured: Megan H. with her newborn Remi, & twins Tristan & Jullian.

What image comes to your mind when you hear or read those two words together? To some, it may signify telling the truth as opposed to telling a lie. To others, it might reference word choice and tone – what you say and how you say it. You can be funny or kind and lift up, or you can be critical or mean and tear down.

But looking at it another way, there is ample research that shows that words matter to the very youngest among us and can have a huge impact on the quality of life of your infant or toddler as they grow into an adult.

Wow! It’s hard to believe that infancy begins to set the stage for adulthood. What does all that mean?

In 1995, two researchers discovered that infant children of wealthier families had heard and been exposed to 30 million more words by the time they reached age 3, compared to the infant children of families who were less well off. The children who hear more words early in life begin kindergarten with stronger vocabularies, are stronger readers, and get higher test scores. They also have improved processing functions and better understand instructions at earlier ages.

How many children never reach their full potential in life simply because their parents do not understand that there is a window between birth and age 3 when reading to and verbally interacting with their child is extremely important? The opportunity is easy to miss because of our lack of understanding about early brain development and capacity, along with the misconceptions we may have about what kinds of messages or words infants can process. Exposing infants and toddlers to language and other languages early on will impact their capacity for comprehension and learning. These developmental years should not be overlooked. Don’t assume that a two-month- old is only a pooping and burping machine. Carry on conversations with them using a wide variety of words, not baby talk.

When words cross the child’s ears, they become imprinted in their brain. The child can’t speak the word. The child does not know what the word means, but you are helping their developing brain to process information. Almost like a CPU, the brain processes and stores that verbal imprint. Additionally, the brain is always active. The more words flooded into the brain, the greater the capacity it has. Even as adults, the more you hear, read and see, the more you learn. Exposure to new things is especially important for the developing brain.

Almost everyone can remember a time when a cute three or four-year-old shocked everyone around by blurting out a complex, thought-induced sentence or named all the presidents in order. It’s not that they are smarter than other kids, it’s that they were exposed to that information early on. The Not-For-Profit North Central Regional Betterment Coalition (NCRBC) thinks it is time to help more parents raise the potential of their children by being advocates for exposure to language and communication in those early formative years. They hope to encourage more parents and grandparents to read to and verbally engage with the newborn to threeyear- old children in their families and circles of influence. NCRBC President J. Burt says that the mission has a dual imperative. Burt explains, “We want all children to grow up to have the most satisfying life they can possibly have. If we do that, we know we will be increasing the quantity of the number of people thriving, instead of merely striving or simply surviving in LaSalle, Bureau, and Putnam counties. That helps our communities and employers, and it also helps to attract additional employers to the area.”

NCRBC got started in the 2000’s when a government report found that what was going to hold North Central Illinois back economically was an overabundance of low-skilled, low-wage jobs, accompanied by a shortage of people living in the area without a higher education or an expanded skillset, along with a significant drug problem. In 2009, NCRBC convened a gathering of 165 people, made up of business, government, and educators, to hear an address by former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley on the issue. For the past seven years, NCRBC has been a sponsor of the Discover Manufacturing Career Expo, which creates an opportunity for high school students to tour all aspects of a local manufacturer and participate in sessions with various manufacturers and instructors at Illinois Valley Community College.

Now, NCRBC is preparing to launch a multi-pronged advocacy campaign to get more kids exposed to more words. By partnering with the region’s birthing hospitals, including St. Margaret’s Health, the group will provide the facilities with literature on the importance of reading for distribution at pre-natal classes, in hospital discharge packs, and from pediatricians at the 6-week check-up. In addition, the human resource department of each of the regions’ largest employers will be asked to distribute the reading advocacy literature to their employees who are expectant parents and grandparents. A digital advertising campaign is also planned to continue to emphasize the importance of this message.

Between the availability of smart phones and access to the public library system, there is no shortage of materials for parents to read to their infants and young children. In fact, a great place to start is to read this article out loud to your infant.

What you say to your child and how you say it matters. Encourage learning by exposing them to new things. Read out loud, whether it’s a storybook or a manual. Carry on a conversation – forgo the baby talk. Provide books they can look at. If you want your children to have the best possible life and thrive, your words matter.