Why Parents Need to Talk to Their Babies - Sheila Degotardi

Sheila Degotardi is a Professor of early childhood educationx and Interim Dean of the School of Education at Macquarie University. She has over 30 years of experience working as a teacher and researcher in early childhood education, and her recent research focuses on the Why should you talk to babies.
In this fascinating interview we discuss:
# The importance of speaking to babies
# How parents can create the best language environment to encourage development
# When and how to introduce devices/technology to children [Controversy Alert!!]
# When is the best time to enrol your infant/toddler in an early childhood centre.
Links mentioned in the video:
This one details what parents should look for in terms of the quality of an ECE service, and also links to where parents can get that info about specific services... Choosing a quality service:
Here is Sheila's Research Centre website:

Automated Transcription of the Podcast: 

Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to the Parenting in the Digital Age podcast, many parents are concerned that their child might be falling behind. Others are just looking for ways to help their children thrive, not just in the classroom, but socially and well into their future careers. Each episode, we explore the challenges facing parents in the modern world, from behaviour, education and nutrition, to device and gaming addiction. We interview a range of leaders in the area of childhood development to help you successfully navigate parenting in the digital age, here is your host Jamie Buttigieg.
Speaker 2 (00:40):
Okay. Hi parents. And welcome to another episode of the Parenting in the Digital Age podcast. And today we have an incredibly special guest joining us. Sheila Degotardi is a professor of early childhood education, uh, and interim Dean of the School of Education at Macquarie University. She has over 30 years experience working as a teacher and researcher in early childhood education. And her recent research focuses on the importance of talking to infants and toddlers. That is our topic for today. So before we get too deep into our topic, Sheila, could you, uh, maybe share with our listeners in your own words, what you do and what you are passionate about?
Speaker 3 (01:17):
Sure. Thanks Jamie. So basically, uh, my background is, is as an early childhood teacher. That's where I started my career, uh, about 30 years ago, teaching in early childhood centers in preschools and long daycare centers with very young children. Um, but over the course of time, I've gone into the university system and now I'm a researcher in early childhood education. Uh, which basically means that I spend most of my time seeking an answer to that critical question of how do children, how do children learn and what can we do to support this learning? So, you know, I'm particularly interested in young children, very young children, babies, and toddlers, cuz I think that this is quite an overlooked period of their life. We tend to just assume that infants and toddlers will learn, um, and assume that that's gonna happen. Um, and I think we overlook it because, you know, we, we ignore the fact that infants and toddlers are very much learners from birth. Um, and these earliest experiences that they have really set the foundation. So, so yeah, that's in a nutshell what I do, I spend a lot of time watching and analyzing videos of babies and toddlers and trying to focus on what capabilities they have and how we can support that.
Speaker 2 (02:39):
Yeah, that's wonderful. And uh, you know, this is a topic very dear to our heart. Nick and I have recently become grandparents. Yes, well seven or eight months ago. And uh, baby Zoe is beautiful. And uh, you know, we have these sorts of conversations and many people wonder why talking to babies is so important given that not able to answer an answer back yet. And so in your research, um, you, you argue that talking to babies is critical for their development. So perhaps you can explain, uh, why.
Speaker 3 (03:07):
Yeah, I think as I said, we tend to overlook this because infants and toddlers are still to enter that world of language. We assume that we don't really need to talk to them that maybe they don't understand and they certainly can't talk back. But what we know through our research is that this is, is not the case. And so I'm gonna give you two critical key reasons why we need to talk to babies. So to start off with, they come into the world when they're born and you would've seen this with your own, uh, granddaughter, when they're born, they come into this world. They're interested in interacting with other people. They're interested in faces. They're clearly drawn towards looking at other people and that they actually do show signs of reaching out straight away to interact in this preverbal way with other people. So the key thing here is that when they're born, this is when that brain development in those first few months of life.
Speaker 3 (04:07):
This is when the brain development is really firing. It's really kicking, connections are being made between neurons. That set the foundation for the learning that is yet to come. So when we interact with them, we stimulate that those connections, we stimulate their brains and that reinforces to them the importance of human connections and the importance of language. So that's, that's one reason why we need to interact with them and talk to them. The other reason is that they also come into the world already tuned into human language. So what people don't uh, realize is that those babies have been hearing us talk and sometimes talk to them when they're in the womb, they're already tuning into that world of language. So when they come into the world, they, they want to continue that tuning in process. And when we talk to them, they gradually tune their understanding of language, to the language of their family and, and culture.
Speaker 3 (05:13):
What people often don't realize is that babies are born with the ability to hear and potentially produce every single sound in every language in the world. They have that capacity when they're born. But as we talk to them, using our language, your language of your culture, the language of your family, slowly, those sounds that they don't use, they lose that ability to recognize and to produce, whereas the sounds that they do hear, and that they're exposed to all the time, they're tuning into those sounds so by about eight or nine months. And you'll start to hear this with your granddaughter soon. Uh, an English-speaking baby will babble using English sounds a Chinese-speaking baby will babble using Chinese sounds and so on and so forth. So again, we are setting that's the building blocks from which those words will then happen. And so they start to tune into their own language.
Speaker 3 (06:13):
And that's why it's so important that we surround them with language that we do talk to them. Because the other thing that we know is that babies in their first year, they understand a lot more than they can say much, much more. And we're starting to find out more and more that babies, even when they're six months old are starting to understand particular words that we say. So just the fact that they can't say the words themselves doesn't mean that we shouldn't be talking to them because we are setting that foundation that will then take them into language as they get a little bit older.
Speaker 2 (06:46):
Yeah. That's, it's incredible to see the amount of, uh, learning and you know, just the brain firing at such a young age. And, and I guess this brings us kind of into that language environment. So this is, this is, this is a two part question here, Sheila, and your research looks at the infants and toddlers language environment. So first of all, can you explain what you mean by that, but also, um, you know, what are some of those important features of this language environment and what can parents and caregivers do to provide a rich language environment?
Speaker 3 (07:16):
Okay. So the language environment, it refers to all of the communication and talk that surrounds the child that the child is experiencing as they're in their day-to-day world, regardless of what they're doing, but also the communication and talk that the child is directly participating in. So it's not just about talking a lot around the child and assuming that they're gonna absorb it, it's more than that. They have to hear that, but it's more about talking not only to the childintofrom but also talking with the child. And so, so to kind of explain that a little bit more, when we talk to the child, we are obviously imparting a message as I'm imparting a message through talking now that's important that that child hears that, but it's not enough for the child just to simply hear that words, those words that come their way. It's important for us to think about the quality of the communication and the quality of the language as well.
Speaker 3 (08:20):
And in particular, open up opportunities for that child to participate in to and fro interactions with other people. We do this in a number of ways. So to start off with, we would all recognize that when we talk to very young babies, we tend to adjust the way that we talk. Um, so you'd know it used to be called many years ago. Uh, it was called motherese then it became parentees and now it's just called child-directed talk. And it's when we are talking often to preverbal infants, we slow down, we repeat key phrases, you know, we'll say something like, you know, hello, how are you today? How are you? I'm good. Are you good? This kind of repeating, we raise the pitch of our voice. But the other thing that we do is in that rather, um, obscure example that I just gave you.
Speaker 3 (09:26):
The other thing that we do is we say these short phrases, and then we wait and why are we waiting? We're waiting. So for some kind of recognition that the child has heard us and that the child responds to us and with very little babies, if you wait, you'll see them, they might smile. They might use another facial gesture. They might move their bodies and we wait and then we'll say something else. And then we wait for a response. And then we say something else. That is the child's first conversation. I've said something they've communicated back to me. I've said something back to them. This is this to-and-fro conversation. That is absolutely critical for them. When they get a little bit older, we are just the way that we talk to them. So with a toddler, we wouldn't go so much into that kind of singy song, uh, kind of way of interacting.
Speaker 3 (10:25):
We talk more about what they're interested in. If they're playing with, um, blocks, we'll talk more about what are you doing? Are you building a big tower? I can see that's a really tall tower you're doing so well there, we're talking more about what they're doing. We're labeling items. We are asking questions to invite a response back, to invite their, them, to communicate with us. And we are using richer language and more complex language. So what we do as the child gets older, we adjust our language to the child, but we make sure that there are opportunities for what's sometimes called serve and return. I say something, you return it back to me. I say something else, you return it back to me. And what the research is showing us is that this is the critical element because it's not just providing the child with the input, but it's basically telling the child, you are a communicator here.
Speaker 3 (11:30):
You have language, you have ways of communicating with me, whether they be language or, or gesture, or, uh, battling, and you are important, and I'm gonna listen to you and I'm gonna respond to you. So it's socializing the child into realizing that language is important and language is really useful way of reaching out to other people and of learning and of expressing what you know. And I guess the last thing I would say in response to that is that you don't need to set up, um, you know, clever experiences to do this. You take every opportunity that you can. So where, when you are holding the baby, when you're changing the nappy, you're doing this, you're chatting to them. When you're changing the nappy with the toddler in the supermarket, you're talking to them about what are we going to cook for dinner tonight? What do we need in their trolley? Um, can you hold, hold the, um, the bag whilst I reach this can of whatever you're using this constantly in all of the interactions that you are, that go across your day. So it's nothing special. It's just being mindful of talking with our young children
Speaker 2 (12:46):
That, that that's so fascinating. And how, how important is the nonverbal component of communication? So when we, um, you know, our tone perhaps, or our body language, our facial expressions.
Speaker 3 (12:58):
Yeah. Well, I mean, they often say with, with any kind of language, human language, we communicate more by what we don't say than what we say. Yeah. Um, you know, we communicate with our, with our faces, with our gestures and so on. So with young children, this is, is part of the communication. If we communicate and, and there's been research to show this, when you start communicating with, to babies in a monotone way, if you're not using eye contact, they tune out, they know that this is not how communication is supposed to happen. Communication is supposed to be expressive. Uh, we're expressing ourselves. And so yes, use gestures, use your face, use your emotions. Um, you know, you don't have to do it in and over the top way, but by if, if you're, um, talking about something with a toddler, using a gesture to direct their attention, to what you're talking about, that helps them to understand that this particular word means this particular object. It helps them to understand that connection. So, yeah, the nonverbal is really, really important. And in particular with nonverbal babies, um, it is important to recognize the babies communicate with their whole body. They're not just communicating when they're crying, we recognize that pretty quickly, but they communicate when they squeal, when they move their arms, when they move their legs, when they use their face. And so on, all of these things are communicating to us and it's important for us to interpret it as communicating and respond.
Speaker 2 (14:42):
Yeah, wonderful. Now, as, as you know, I'm associated with Skill Samurai and, uh, um, you know, we're all who are also the sponsors of the show. Um, but at skills center, right, we're very, very passionate about helping kids prepare for that digital future through coding. But more importantly, we really try hard to help kids build a healthy relationship with technology and, uh, you know, more and more, I see toddlers and even babies now, um, with devices in their prams or at restaurants, um, you know, first, maybe a two part question. What is your view on this, firstly, uh, and what is your advice for parents thinking about introducing devices to the young ones, you know, is there an ideal age?
Speaker 3 (15:20):
Okay. It's a very controversial topic with very, very young children, as you can imagine. Um, I think there, there are a couple of things to stress. Number one is, and you, obviously, you are part of this is that technology is part of our work. We, we have screens everywhere. We have devices everywhere. They're very useful. We use them for very, very valuable purposes. And so the idea that all screen time for young children is bad, is very much, it's not only unrealistic to have that attitude because unless you want to completely remove your child away from modern society, you know, they're going to be exposed to screens. Um, and so we have to recognize that, that this is the case. What we need to do is exactly what you've said. We've got to help children to have a healthy relationship with screens.
Speaker 3 (16:26):
I think one thing to remember is what I, I spoke about a little bit earlier, which is the incredible brain connections that are happening with very young children. And there is, there are concerns that too much screen time, or even very little screen time with very, very young children, maybe creating connections that is not going to be valuable for the child. So I think we do need to keep that in mind. I personally don't feel that there's really any advantage of screen time for very young children. They will become mesmerized with it and they will watch the screen to the exclusion of anything else. And it's the exclusion of anything else that is the key element. If they're fixated on a screen, they are not getting this human interaction that they not only want, but they need. Yeah. So, um, you know, and, and we see that we see screens being used as, as kind of distractions and as babysitting devices and so on and so forth.
Speaker 3 (17:33):
If it happens just a little bit, there's probably very little harm, but when it happens a lot, or if it happens repeatedly, every time the child goes out, they're put with a screen in front of them. It stops them interacting with the rest of their world. And to me, that that is detrimental. And the research is starting to show that that is actually detrimental as they get a little bit older as they go into the toddler years. Then the issue is not so much. Should we be having screens yes or no? It's how should we use screen time with the child? So there are some very good apps and there are some very good, um, television programs, for example, out there, TVs are a big screen, um, that encourage interaction where either the child is interacting with somebody on the screen, but more, um, I think more valuable is when the parent or the caregiver sits with the child and they chat about what they're doing together.
Speaker 3 (18:43):
So they're getting that human interaction, I guess I would be saying for children under the age of three, which are, uh, kind of, you know, the age that I'm particularly interested in working with, I would be minimizing the screen time, but as they go through the toddler years, I think having a little bit, and having that in an interactive way with a parent who's, you know, you're playing that game with the child. Then I think that there is, is no harm in that. It just becomes another activity it's when that activity takes over everything else that there's, that's where the danger lies, I think.
Speaker 2 (19:24):
Yeah. And I think parents are certainly, uh, facing a challenge, you know, when you've got, uh, you know, game manufacturers, social media channels, uh, even television, you know, for that matter, the whole commercial directive is to how, how, how do we keep these users, uh, you know, in our platform for as long as possible. It's almost like the, the, uh, the cards are stacked against parents from the outset. So I, I, I love your viewpoint there. It's, it's, it's less about the, when and more about the how, and, uh, absolutely. And, and making it a, an exchange, uh, you know, working with parents, not just handing a device and leaving them to the app. So that's, uh, yeah. Fascinating. Yeah. Good. Um, good view. Thank you. Okay. Um, more broadly, um, many parents, uh, I speak to, but certainly now in our family, uh, that they're worried about, uh, enrolling their babies and toddlers into an early childhood center. Mm-hmm <affirmative>, um, you know, how would you respond to this concern? And again, maybe loosely, like, is there an ideal age? What are the benefits and the outcomes over to you?
Speaker 3 (20:23):
Um, I think, you know, a lot of parents worry about this. I speak to a lot of people and the first thing they often ask me is, you know, I, I've got a six-month-old baby, when, when are they okay to go into childcare? And there is this, there's a lot of guilt that is put on parents. There's this thought that childcare is somehow bad for children. That's a myth that has been debunked. Uh, the issue that we need to be looking at is the quality of the service that they're going into. So do they have sufficient staff? Are the staff, when you go in and visit, are they sitting on the floor and playing with the children? Can you see them interacting in the way that I've been explaining with the children? Is there one on one attention or are the, all the, um, educators looking so busy and so frazzled that the children are kind of left to their own devices?
Speaker 3 (21:18):
That's not good quality. So the quality is, is the issue there. Um, what we know, uh, we've now got quite a strong, well, actually a very strong body of research that demonstrates quite clearly, if it's a high quality program, not only are children fine to go into an early childhood center, but they actually thrive. They actually do really, really well. And you know, this, this idea that a child has to stay with a parent is not, um, in, in isolation, basically for maybe the first three years of their life is just not the case. We know that that is not the case at all. We now know that early childhood centers and parents, they actually partner in the raising of very happy, healthy, well-adjusted young children, but the crux is the quality. We're lucky in Australia. We've got quite a rigorous system that assesses the quality of early childhood centers.
Speaker 3 (22:21):
Every early childhood center has to be assessed for its quality and centers that don't make the grade have to take action to improve, or they're not allowed to operate anymore. So we have quite a good system and the Australian children's, oh, I'll say this slowly, the Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority, "asequal," we call it. Um, they have a website where any parent can go on and can look at the quality rating that their center has. And that should actually be on display in an early childhood center, whether it's meeting standards or exceeding standards or working towards, which means that they're, they're having to address something. So, as I said, it's the quality that is important. Is there an ideal age? No, there isn't. It really depends on parents' circumstances. It depends on the child as well. There are sweet spots as well.
Speaker 3 (23:24):
Uh, in terms of, you know, parents always worried that their child's going to be really upset. Children who start early childhood centers before the age of about eight months or so on. Usually settle in pretty quickly. It's tricky between about eight, nine months and about 18 months because that's when they, they have this kind of anxiety around separation and so on as do the parents, um, have that anxiety around it, it becomes more tricky, but a good center, a high-quality center will be able to work with parents and work with the children to, to get them over that tricky bump. Um, and usually, and I, I can remember this from my own children many years ago. Uh, one who used to was terribly pretty much until I left the car park and then was absolutely fine for the rest of the day. So, um, you know, there is no sweet spot in terms of when to start your child.
Speaker 3 (24:29):
But what I think is important is when you do start is that they have consistency that we often think, oh, we'll just send them for one day a week. But if you think about that with a baby, if that baby say an eight-month-old goes one day a week, then it's six more days before they meet those educators and those children. And so on. Again, it's actually better for them to go a couple of days a week or three days a week, or, even more so that they develop that relationship with those staff. And they get to know those staff and those staff become significant adults in their life. So they trust them. They have security with those staff and increasingly with the children as well. So, as I said, no hard and fast answers, but I think it's about finding a good service.
Speaker 3 (25:18):
One that you are comfortable with as well. A good service will allow you to go visit and will allow you to spend a bit of time there. And when your child starts, we'll encourage you to spend time. So it's not just drop off, here's my child off. I go, you go in, you spend time, you get to know the service as well as your child. And then they just become an extension basically of, of your social world. Um, and they can support you as a family and you can support them as a service. So it, it works well for, for children and parents, as well as the service.
Speaker 2 (25:52):
Yeah. Some real, yeah, that actually some really good takeaways in that and good and a good service isn't necessarily exclusive to price and or area. No, you know, it's, uh, you know, largely dictated by leadership and that care and compassion and the empathy and, and their values within that centre. And, and coming back to what you said, you know, actually I'll post that website somewhere in our, uh, blog there for parents to access, but it really is about getting into that centre. And just, how do you feel what, you know, as a parent asking those key questions to, um, find out that level of care, uh, and the core values of a center and its leadership. So, um, some good takeaways there. Yeah.
Speaker 3 (26:30):
Yeah. The leadership is absolutely critical as well. And the support that the, the leaders of that service gives their gives to their educators is really, really important. So there are some good questions there that you could ask.
Speaker 2 (26:42):
Yeah. Wonderful. So a bit of a fun question to, uh, start to wrap up, uh, if you could, we, we asked this of all of our guests, uh, if you could go back to your say, 10-year-old self and give yourself one piece of advice, what would that be?
Speaker 3 (26:57):
That's a tricky one, actually. Um, what would it be? I, you know what I think, I think the most important thing that I've learned across my time and that I would well and truly beat my younger self about the Headwood is just stay curious. I think curiosity for me is the most important disposition that we have as human beings, because it helps us to embrace surprises and not be scared of surprises. If we are curious, we, we wanna know more. And so we're willing to take those risks. So maybe that's why they became a researcher. Cause I'm curious. Yeah. Uh, I wanna always find out more and I think, you know, being curious means that we are not always obsessing with what we should know, but instead we are thinking about, well, how can I find out something? How can I learn something new? So yeah, there, there you go.
Speaker 2 (27:52):
Great piece of advice for very curious for everyone, not just your 10-year-old self that's wonderful. And, uh, and lastly, where can our listeners find you online or how can they connect with you? Mm-hmm
Speaker 3 (28:01):
<affirmative> okay. Um, basically if you go onto the Macquarie University, um, website and search for my name, um, you'll find how to connect with me. We've also got a research center, so that's the Center for Research in Early Childhood Education. Um, and my details are, are on there as well. Cause I'm the director of that centre. So, um, people can usually find me with a surname like mine, there aren't too many Sheila Degotardi around. So if you Google me, it'll come up.
Speaker 2 (28:30):
Wonderful, Sheila, thanks again for your time. It's been a, uh, truly enlightening and, uh, meaningful interview. So, uh, thanks again.
Speaker 3 (28:37):
You're very welcome.

If you enjoyed the show, please connect with Jamie on LinkedIn or Instagram. You'll find links in the podcast. Description parenting in the digital age is sponsored by Skill Samurai, coding and stem academy for kids. Skill Samurai offers after-school coding classes and holiday programs to help kids thrive academically and socially while preparing them for the careers of the future. Visit