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Photo of Micheal Sandbank using sensors to study brain activity in children


At times, parents can be teased for using “baby talk” with their young children. But it turns out that baby talk, the slow, elongated, varied-pitch manner in which parents often speak to babies and small children, may actually help with their language and speech, an insight that could be helpful for children with autism.

Micheal Sandbank is studying how typically developing children and those with developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies are providing researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, with an eventual goal of leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. The studies may also inform intervention practices for children with autism. Sandbank is an assistant professor and area coordinator for early childhood and special education in the College of Education.

Photo of young girl wearing brain sensorsThrough their research, Sandbank’s team has found that the word processing “signal” is strongest when typically developing children hear words spoken in baby talk rather than adult-directed speech. This is even the case with children as old as 36 months. While the team sees a good signal for these older toddlers with adult-directed speech, baby talk is still stronger. The researchers are still examining this signal in children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

Photo of the Brain and Language Lab

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using a device resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses. The team continues to recruit children with autism and process data.

The team is conducting a meta-analysis of early intervention data.