On a sunny afternoon, 18-year-old Margaret Rim bounces her infant son on her knee in an empty classroom at South Lake High School.
A public health nurse, Emma Spohn, sits down next to her.
“Hi! Look, there’s Emma!” Rim says to 2-month-old Raiden.
Spohn, who is with Seattle King County Public Health, coos over the baby boy: “Oh, hello, sweet boy! Oh my goodness! Oh, those cheeks! He loves looking at your face.”
Spohn visits Rim every two weeks as part of the Nurse-Family Partnership, a nationwide program that pairs low-income, first-time moms with visiting nurses. The nurses mentor them from early in pregnancy until the baby is two years old.
They either meet at Rim’s apartment, or at South Lake High, in Seattle. The high school has a special program for teen moms and their babies.
Today, they’re talking about the importance of talking and reading to baby Raiden as much as possible.
Babies from low-income families can be at a disadvantage throughout infancy when it comes to learning language. It turns out there’s a simple step parents can take to help keep their children on course, starting in year one, something most people take for granted: Baby talk.
Spohn says that’s key to helping him develop his language skills.
“I just encourage that any bit of reading, any bit of spelling, any bit of language and just being able to talk to our babies, that that is the gift, and that’s the secret,” Spohn says.
She encourages Rim to look beyond books and get creative.
“The other thing we talk about, especially as he gets bigger, is making your own story,” Spohn says.
“I was thinking this week of what a story would be of, like, ‘Mommy and Raiden Go Back to School.’ Could that not be a story?”
Said Rim, “I was making up a story when I was talking to him yesterday, and I was telling him that he had to be nice, and I told him what I was going to be doing during school, and what he could be doing during school.”
“Yes!” Spohn said.
Even though Raiden is just a babe in arms, there’s evidence that talking and reading to him regularly is one of the best ways to get him ready for his own academic career.
In one well-known study, researchers recorded parents’ interactions with their young children for several years.
They found that the kids from professional families heard an estimated 30 million more words by age three than children whose parents were on welfare.
Poor children ended up with much smaller vocabularies.
And the huge gap remained years later, in third grade.
Patricia Kuhl studies young children’s development at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.
Several years ago, Kuhl and her colleagues measured young children’s cognitive skills, intelligence and social skills. But she says the best indicator of children’s brain development wasn’t any of those measures.
It was their families’ socioeconomic status.
Kuhl and her colleagues found a direct relationship between income level and children’s access to libraries and books in their homes. They recorded conversations between the parents and kids.
“As you went down the socioeconomic scale, children had fewer opportunities to learn, because there weren’t those supporting things and interactions in the home,” she said.
There can be many reasons parents don’t talk to their kids as much: Exhaustion from working multiple jobs, the stresses of poverty, education levels, and whether their parents talked and read to them.
Kuhl says that gap could be narrowed if parents realized the power they hold to develop their children’s brains – for free.
And she says parents can’t start too early.
“Our data are demonstrating that babies are learning in the womb,” she said. “Listening to you talk in the last 10 weeks starts them up on the learning process with regard to language."
A 2013 study from her lab showed that babies recognize Mom’s voice and even the vowel sounds of her language. They are born and curious to hear something new, Kuhl said, “which proves that they’ve learned what they’ve been hearing so far.”
Kuhl says overheard conversations and TV don’t do the trick – only live, face-to-face interactions with baby get the right neurons firing.
Kuhl says that’s because babies learn language not just with their ears, but also with their eyes.
They’re carefully watching the speaker’s facial expressions and mouth movements to figure out how to make their own mouths make those sounds.
As Margaret Rim told nurse Emma Spohn, that’s what baby Raiden’s been working on.
“Yesterday I was spelling kangaroo but, well, I realized this morning I was spelling it wrong,” Rim said.
“You were spelling it to him?” Spohn said.
“I spelled it k-a-n-g-r-o-o but I forgot the ‘a’ in between,” she said. “At the end I would go 'click' and he started going 'click' and after a little bit I realized he was copying me.”
Spohn’s eyes lit up. “Yes!”
At age 18, Rim has been in and out of school.
Raiden’s father only got his GED.
Rim wants more for their son.
“I know he’ll be smart enough to graduate,” she said. “Me and his dad were, we just kinda hit a few bumps. And hopefully he doesn’t go through as bad as we did. But I want him to graduate so he can have a better life.”
That’s something she talks about with her baby.