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Practices for Parent-Infant Play

Parent-Infant Play
Parent-Infant Play
Rebecca J. Woods, Ph.D., Assistant Professor; Macie Murphy, Undergraduate Student Department of Human Development and Family Science, NDSU

Much of infant learning occurs through parent-infant play. Studies investigating parent-infant interactions demonstrate that when parents play with their infants, the parents naturally engage in behaviors that enhance learning. Some of these behaviors include infant-directed speech, motionese (exaggerated actions adults use when interacting with infants) and gestures, all of which are tailored to babies’ responses and needs.

Infant-directed Speech

You may have noticed that when you talk to babies, you speak in a way that is very different from the way you talk to other adults. This manner of speaking is called infant-directed speech (also known as motherese, fatherese, parentese or care-giverese). Infant-directed speech is characterized by the use of simple sentences, exaggerated pitch changes, extended vowels and repetition. It is different from “baby-talk,” which imitates the way toddlers speak.

Infant-directed speech is common across cultures and it reflects our sensitivity to infants’ reactions to our behavior. When parents and caregivers use infant-directed speech, they are responding to infants’ increased engagement in this way of talking relative to other styles of speech. The best thing about infant-directed speech, however, is that it enhances babies’

Segregating speech sounds and identifying word boundaries is easier when infant-directed speech is used, compared with when adult-directed speech is used. As a result, infant-directed speech enhances language learning as well as learning about objects. This way of talking also has been associated with the development of emotional expression. As infants’ language abilities progress, we gradually replace infant-directed speech with more adultlike ways of talking.

Add Motionese

Like infant-directed speech, motionese is based on caregiving that is sensitive to babies’ behavioral responses. Motionese is an intuitive way of showing objects to infants that is very different from the way we would show objects to adults. It is characterized by maintaining proximity to the baby, and using enthusiasm, a large range of motion, repetitiveness and simplification during turn-taking (number of distinct actions performed during each turn). The use of motionese enhances attention to and learning about objects.

When infants learn about objects in their environment, typically through play, they can attend to only a limited amount of information. The brain essentially “dumps” information that is irrelevant. However, information that is meaningful is maintained for further processing. It is stored in memory and can be used later for reasoning about the environment.

For infants, meaning can be attached through play with a caregiver. Joint attention, shared attention by an infant and caregiver, to objects or other people can determine what is further processed by the brain. Studies exploring the use of motionese suggest that infants process more information about objects that are presented using this method than they do about objects that are presented in other ways.

Expression Through Gestures

Gestures are another form of communication used naturally by parents when they play with their infants. Gestures include actions of the arms, hands, fingers, face or even the entire body. The goal of all gestures is communication. They can be used as a way to enhance verbal communication, or they can be used alone as the sole means of communication.

Parents frequently use gestures such as pointing during play with infants and objects. Infants are particularly receptive to pointing as a means for directing attention to objects after the age of about 9 months (prior to 9 months, infants typically look at the hand rather than the object). Infants, in turn, often use reaching as a gesture to indicate the desire to hold
or explore an object. The use of gestures by parents and infants has been associated with early language learning.

The push for parents to use baby sign language with their infants originated from studies investigating the effects of gesture
use on language development. But before you pull out the baby sign book, you may be interested to know that studies have shown that naturally occurring gestures and other nonverbal cues such as eye gaze also enhance infants’ language learning. In parent-infant-object play, the combination of gestures and language provide the best boost to learning.

Tying it All Together

Although adults naturally engage in these behaviors when interacting with their infants, researchers have found individual differences in amount and quality. These differences can predict, for example, the vocabulary of children when they reach school age.

The bottom line? When playing with infants, be aware of these verbal and nonverbal behaviors that can enhance learning. If you notice you are not using these behaviors or are using them infrequently, try adding a few and see how your baby responds.

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