You’ve heard of the wage gap, the gender gap, and the price gap, but are you familiar with the gap that affects babies? No, I am not referring to Baby Gap! The word gap is a tremendous problem in America, and many parents are not even aware that it exists. The word gap is the term for the words that babies do not hear throughout their first few years. Babies derive most of their vocabulary from the vocabulary of their parents or caregivers. Studies show that babies are listening and taking in information from the world before they are even born. Unfortunately, some parents are not aware of just how astute young babies are. Other parents may be dealing with extreme poverty or toxic stress, and talking to their baby moves down on the list of priorities.
Researchers have found that a child of lower economic status hears roughly 30 million fewer words during the first three years of life than their more affluent peers. Because 80% of a child’s brain is developed by age three, not hearing words spoken to them by their parents during this critical developmental period puts them at a huge disadvantage.
As a result of the word gap, children all over our country are not given a fair chance, starting kindergarten already behind their peers simply because their parents didn’t know the importance of interacting with them. As a parent and occupational therapist, I feel strongly that when we know better, we do better. We are our children’s first teachers, and it is a critically important job. Recent studies show that children who fall victim to the word gap have a lower rate of literacy, difficulty graduating from high school, and getting a job. It is a public health crisis yet so easy to fix. Simple education can fix this problem.
Here are some “word gap hacks” to remind you to talk to your baby and young children all day long and ideas to increase their vocabulary:
1. Mommy and daddy “to be” and even older siblings can get in the habit of reading to the baby before he is even born.
2. Carry your baby with you in a vertical baby carrier (aka babywearing) as you clean, do chores, make dinner, and go outside to get the mail. Narrate everything you are doing.
3. Every morning, tell your baby your plans for the day.
4. When you get on your phone to check email or text, get in the habit of first setting the timer on your phone so you don’t lose track of time and end up going five minutes or longer without talking to your baby.
5. While emailing, texting, or even reading a book or a magazine, read aloud to your baby, occasionally making eye contact with her.
6. Every time you check the weather, tell your baby the forecast. Tell him how it will impact him. For example, “It might rain today. We will have to put on your raincoat.”
7. While driving, explain in detail what you see.
8. During playtime and mealtime with your toddler, offer her lots of choices. For example, “Do you want the blue crayon or the red crayon?” This will encourage her to interact with you.
9. Be silly with your toddler. Put her shirt on her feet or her pants on her arms so she will tell you how to do it correctly. Place her in the bathtub, “forgetting” to take off her shirt, so she speaks up and reminds you.
10. While reading a book to your preschooler, ask him to read every other page to you. Even if he only explains what’s happening in the picture, this is a great skill.
11. Use many words that teach spatial skills, such as over, under, above, and below. For example, “Can you drive your train under the chair?”
12. Have a bedtime ritual such as talking about the best part of your day, saying a prayer, or reading a book together.