Babies Read Lips Before They Can Speak

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It’s always so fascinating to see a baby go from cooing and babbling to speaking actual words, even typical first ones like “mama” and “dada.” New research shows that babies learn to speak not just from hearing sounds but from reading people’s lips, too.

Florida scientists discovered that, starting at around 6 months old, babies begin studying mouths when people talk to them rather than focusing exclusively on the eyes. “The baby, in order to imitate you, has to figure out how to shape their lips to make that particular sound they’re hearing,’’ said developmental psychologist David Lewkowicz of Florida Atlantic University. “It’s an incredibly complex process.’’

Lewkowicz and his team tested nearly 180 babies at ages 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 months by showing videos of a woman speaking in English or Spanish to the babies (all born to English-speaking parents). They tracked where each baby focused his or her gaze and for how long.

They found that when the speaker used English, the 4-month-olds gazed mostly into her eyes. The 6-month-olds spent equal amounts of time looking at the eyes and the mouth. The 8- and 10-month-olds studied mostly the mouth. At 12 months, attention started shifting back toward the speaker’s eyes. But when the babies hear Spanish, the 12-month-olds studied the mouth longer, just like younger babies.

The finding, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, emphasizes the importance of face-time with your little one. It also may help researchers with identifying autism, which is currently diagnosed with behavioral testing beginning at 18 months of age. “The earlier we can diagnose it [autism], the more effectively we can ensure the best possible developmental outcomes,” said Lewkowicz.

(Photo: Hemera)