Every parent knows they should feel guilty about using those electronic babysitters – the TV and computer – but now Scottish scientists have established just how important verbal communication is between mothers and their babies.
Researchers have uncovered a link between a lack of talking between a mother and her baby and the risk of the child developing emotional problems and behavioural disorders in later life.
The study, which analysed hundreds of videos of mothers interacting with their year-old babies, found that less "vocalisation" by the parent was associated with an increase in the likelihood the child would develop conditions such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
For every reduction of five vocalisations – ranging from simple sounds to words – per minute by the mother, the odds of an infant going on to develop such a condition by the age of seven increased by 44%.
The researchers said while the findings do not mean that failing to talk to your baby causes psychological and psychiatric problems, it suggest that "active" parenting may have a protective effect against such conditions.
Study co-author Philip Wilson, professor of primary care and rural health at the University of Aberdeen, said there were a number of hypotheses which could explain the link between a mother's communication and the risk of developing problems.
"We have got the possibility that active parenting and active communication by the parents may have a protective effect against the development of problems with attention and conduct," he said.
"The other main hypothesis is to do with genetics. We know people who themselves have ADHD or conduct problems tend to be more under-active and communicate less later on in life.
"So the second possible explanation is it may be the mothers themselves have ADHD and have become underactive and passed on the genetic vulnerability to the children."
He added: "My hunch is that it is somewhere in between the two and it has probably got both things. The child probably has to have some genetic vulnerability to these conditions on the one hand – but on the other hand more engaged and active parenting might be protective."
Wilson said he believed the study, which is being published in the journal Research In Developmental Disabilities, is the first that has compared early parental communications and the development of disorders using examples from the general population.
This study used videos from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents And Children (ALSPAC), which has tracked around 13,000 mothers and infants since the late 1990s.
Study co-author Dr Clare Allely, a psychologist at Glasgow University's Institute Of Health And Wellbeing, said: "We used 180 videos for this study of mothers interacting with their 12-month-old infants – of which 120 were controls and 60 were of the children who were later diagnosed with disorders at seven years old."
In 2003, the National Literacy Trust launched a campaign to encourage parents and carers to talk more to children under three. It was set up in response to concerns that too many children entered nursery and school with poor communication skills.
Cathy Hamer, manager of the Talk To Your Baby campaign, said: "The majority of brain development occurs in the first three years of a child's life."
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