Once Upon a Time…

You learn new things every day; sometimes, learning about learning is one of them. I am learning about babies.

As an obstetrician, I deal with them every day -or, more accurately, them as developing organisms- from shortly after conception until birth. Then, as the mother’s needs change -and the baby’s- I kind of lose track of them. But it’s merely a change in expertise rather than a change in interest that fosters the loss. My time with them is truly remarkable, but they are almost a vicarious encounters. Visits by proxy. I see them only indirectly, as it were: as shadows, filtered through the light of their mothers.

Many of the signs we use to assess their health, are really gauges of their mother’s health: blood pressure, urinalysis, weight gain, to name but a few. And especially early in the pregnancy, the mother is the baby in a sense; the baby’s health is usually dependent on her health, for obvious reasons. Later, as activity patterns become more discernible, it seems to be easier -for those of us not carrying the foetus, at least- to appreciate the double entendre that is gestation. Measurements of baby begin to be less indirect, and although always mindful of the mother, less through the mother. Two healths. Two entities -although there always were…

And yet, exciting as this is, when you think about it from a longer -dare I say historical?- perspective, it’s almost as if you had just started reading a book, and intrigued by the first chapters, can hardly wait to read further.

We obstetricians get to start a lot of books, but unless we have our own library, seldom get to read more than what seem like a few pages. Samples. Teasers, really. So I am always fascinated when I discover things not ordinarily in my professional purview. And how a child learns is certainly fascinating. An article in the Economist (of all places) reported on some presentations at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


The part that intrigued me was the effect that talking to your baby and not just around her had on her subsequent vocabulary -and more speculatively, perhaps on her brain growth and performance as well. But even more interesting, although obvious, was that this effect starts really early -much earlier than, say, the preschool age of around four. I mean, we all seem to know this intuitively, but it was helpful to realize that there are now some more sophisticated ways of measuring the results rather than merely presuming them. I suppose one might think that this is one of those things that is so apparent, so manifest, it doesn’t need proving… But it does, as the presentations demonstrated. Merely talking around toddlers, or sitting them in front of the universal sitter: a babbling television set, doesn’t really engage them to the same extent. Or in the same functional way. You have to address the baby as a receptive host. Too, objective? Okay, you have to talk to your baby and assume a comprehension, or at least an appreciation of the sound, cadence, and intention of the words. And, of course, there is an understanding… And the more words the baby hears, the more they are integrated into the matrix.

As a parent, I have to say that I always talked to my babies. It just seemed the right thing to do -and not surprisingly, they actually appeared to like it. To crave it… But ever aware and embarrassed by the idle pratter and cooing sounds simulating word-talk I’d hear on the bus or even in my waiting room, I must admit that my communication was more of a discussion -no, that’s unfair- a storytelling to my toddlers. Yes, I’m sure the nonsense, but rhythm-rich verbalizations to which I am inadvertently subjected are also important and functional, but we all have to find our own paths. The importance is in the attempt. The verbal attention. The semantic connection…

I can’t help but feel an almost overwhelming sense of awe that such a simple, natural interaction can have such profound effects. And of course that’s just one small part of the plot… The story just keeps getting better.


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