Talk of the Town: New Language Program Wins United Way Grant

December 20, 2013

The United Way of Greater Atlanta has pledged to support a program that will get parents talking – literally.

On Dec. 18, the organization announced it will give $500,000 each year for three years to Talk With Me Baby, a new program piloted by half a dozen Georgia agencies, including the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). The program is designed to help parents get into the habit of talking with their babies, a practice that scientists say can do wonders for a child’s future literacy and health.

The program is led by the Marcus Autism Center in partnership with DPH, the Georgia Campaign for Grade Level Reading, Emory University’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Georgia Department of Education.

DPH Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., said Talk With Me Baby teaches skills that are as important to a baby’s health as good nutrition.

“Language is like nutrition for your brain. The more words you hear, the more your brain develops," Fitzgerald said. “If you don’t have language, you can’t progress. Language is the key.”

Research has shown that the first year of a baby’s life, when the brain is developing and maturing, is the most intensive period for acquiring speech and language skills. Those skills are easiest to develop when a baby is consistently exposed to language from even their first hours of life. The regular practice of talking to a baby lays a solid foundation for the child’s future educational achievements.

Jennifer Stapel-Wax, Psy.D., who leads the program for the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, said encouraging the practice in Georgia could help the state reach a goal set by Gov. Nathan Deal that every Georgia child read at their appropriate grade level by the third grade.

“We know how important that early foundation is for reading and education,” she said. “This will be good for all babies, but will certainly be good for any babies at traditional risk.”

Data suggest that babies born into families affected by risk factors such as generational poverty are exposed to fewer words throughout their early years than other children.

"We know that by age 3, babies in families at low-income levels hear 30 million fewer words than a child from a professional family," Fitzgerald said. "Talk With Me Baby will attempt to reach beyond traditional barriers to let all parents know the vital role of regularly speaking to babies."

The program also aims to increase the early identification of babies who may suffer from hearing loss, developmental delays and other conditions, such as autism.

“If you wait for a child to start speaking before you speak to him, you’re missing some critical months,” Stapel-Wax said. “We aren’t waiting for those symptoms to show up. We’ll be pushing language to them from the beginning.”

The program will begin by getting health care providers to start talking. In January, Talk With Me Baby will begin training nurses to introduce parents to the idea of talking to their babies. Training will extend to pediatric nurses, nurses in hospital labor and delivery departments and even nurses who care for a woman when she’s pregnant.

“As funny as it will feel, these nurses will literally be talking to the mom’s belly, with expression, with intonation,” Stapel-Wax said. “They’ll be modelling this behavior, hopefully helping to create these resilient habits in parents of talking to the baby.”

The program will offer instructional videos for parents and health care providers, as well as a variety of reminders for parents to start talking, such as magnets for the refrigerator, text messages or a smart phone app.

Including the award for Talk With Me Baby, United Way gave a total of $3.6 million in grants to teams of organizations designing projects to transform communities around metro Atlanta as a part of its “Dare to Forget the Box” challenge, a program designed to foster collaboration between agencies with similar goals. United Way received 64 applications for the grants and selected four winners.

For more information on United Way of Greater Atlanta’s grant awards, visit its website.

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