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Moms Who Tune-in to Babies' Feelings Raise More Empathetic Kids

The Short of It

A new study reveals that mothers who use language about thoughts and feelings when talking to their babies can improve their children's skills at understanding others when they get older.

The Lowdown

Psychologists at the University of York studied the effects of mothers' mind-mindedness, or the ability to "tune in" to their babies' thoughts and feelings, by observing 40 mothers and their babies when they were 10, 12, 16 and 20 months old.

While a mother and a child played for 10 minutes, psychologists logged every time the mother made comments about her child's thoughts or feelings during behaviors, such as saying the child was "frustrated" when he had difficulty opening a door on a toy car.

The researchers then revisited 15 mother-child pairs when the children reached age 5 or 6 and assessed their socio-cognitive skills, or the level at which the child was able relate to others and understand their thoughts. The psychologists read the children a fictional vignette that described one of 12 social scenarios (contrary emotions, lies, white lies, persuasion, pretend, joke, forget, misunderstanding, double-bluff, figure of speech, appearance versus reality or sarcasm), and then tested the children on whether they understood the mental manipulation in the story.

Results showed a strong, positive correlation between the frequency of the mothers' mind-related comments to their babies and the older children's scores on the stories test.

"These findings show how a mother's ability to tune-in to her baby's thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathize with the mental lives of other people," said lead author Dr. Elizabeth Kirk, lecturer in York's Department of Psychology. "This has important consequences for the child's social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling."

The Upshot

While most parents have probably heard that it's best to talk in a normal voice and in real words when talking to babies instead of using "baby talk," this new information about using the specific language describing their feelings when talking to them is very interesting, as we all want to be sensitive caregivers and raise kids who are kind and caring.

"These results are significant as they demonstrate the critical role of conversational interaction between mothers and their children in infancy," Dr. Kirk said. "This also supports previous research led by psychologist Professor Liz Meins, who leads mind-mindedness research at York."

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