Should I lead or follow my baby? - The Speech Lab

You might be tempted to try talking to babies and toddlers about lots of different things at once. After all, you might think that the more words they hear for different things, the more you'll build their vocabulary.

However, this may not be the case.

Professor Ben Ambridge puts the this theory to the test in the video below.

Try the leading and following experiment at home

  • Lay out a few toys for your toddler to play with.

  • Whichever toy they approach and pick up, wait until they're giving that toy their full attention, pick up another toy, name it, describe it and do whatever you can to get them to pay attention to that toy.

  • Take notice of how difficult it is to get your child to switch their attention.

  • The next time they're playing with a toy, instead of trying to get them to look at a different toy, talk to them all about the toy they're interested in. Notice how engaged they are - are they more animated? Are they saying more words or making more noises? Are they listening to you more?

Why should you follow your baby's lead?

The part of your brain that is used to switch your attention from one thing to another is called the prefrontal cortex. Studies have shown that this isn't usually fully formed until a person reaches around 20 years old.

That means that very young children find it very difficult to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

Given that, the best thing to do for toddlers' language learning is to let them lead - pay attention to the things they are most interested in or playing with already and speak to them about those things as they play. This way they'll absorb more information about what they're doing and the object they're interested in and will learn words more quickly.

This idea of both paying attention to the same thing is sometimes referred to as 'joint attention'..

How to build joint attention

There are lots of games and activities you can try with 12-18 month olds to help develop joint attention skills.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for helping us to switch focus between ideas, doesn't often fully develop until age 20

In case you missed it

Tools for Talking: Following baby's lead
Brilliant Brains - Babies' first words
Why pointing is great for toddlers' language development
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