Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

Talk to your baby, and you’ll improve public health.

That’s the goal in Georgia where officials have launched an initiative called “Talk With Me Baby,” to motivate parents to have conversations that could improve their children’s lifetime outcomes.

Georgia is out to close the word gap that researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley wrote about in the 1990s. They estimated that affluent children hear some 30 million more words than their less affluent peers. The two tried to close this gap by working with 4-year-olds. But they realized that their efforts were coming too late in children’s lives.

To close the word gap, researchers increasingly say, start with babies.

“Right now, Georgia is the only state taking such a coordinated, widespread, public-health-focused approach to reducing the word gap,” according to an online Atlantic article called, “Why Boosting Poor Children’s Vocabulary Is Important for Public Health.”

“There are more isolated efforts in places like Chicago and Providence, Rhode Island, but they operate on a much smaller scale.” Nonetheless, this growing awareness and action shows how communities with targeted public policies and programs can help close the word gap. 

“While the word gap might sound like an edu­ca­tion prob­lem, the health consequences can be dire—and the be­ne­fits of elim­in­at­ing it can be im­mense. Pub­lic health of­fi­cials in Geor­gia re­cog­nize this,” the article says.

“This is pure bio­logy,” Brenda Fitzger­ald, the commissioner of Geor­gia’s Department of Public Health, tells the Atlantic. “Which is why it’s a pub­lic-health ini­ti­at­ive.”

The Atlantic adds: “Chil­dren with more words do bet­ter in school. Adults who were good stu­dents and earned a col­lege de­gree have longer life ex­pect­an­cies. They are at a lower risk for hy­per­ten­sion, de­pres­sion, and sleep prob­lems. They are less likely to be smokers and to be obese.”

Champions of the initiative say it’s a matter of “language nutrition.”

“Just like a child needs an adequate amount of food for physical growth, a child also needs adequate language for his or her brain development,” the Talk With Me Baby initiative explains on its website. “The good news is, language nutrition is free! Parents don’t have to have puzzles, fancy toys, or even be able to read. All parents have to do is talk, interact, and engage with their children in every day life conversations.”

Georgia is working in many settings, according to the Atlantic, which says:

“As one prong of Talk With Me Baby, a cur­riculum for nurs­ing stu­dents has been de­veloped and nurses in the At­lanta metro area are be­ing trained to communicate to par­ents the im­port­ance of talk­ing to ba­bies. That they are the ones de­liv­er­ing the mes­sage is a care­fully cal­cu­lated fact. Again and again, nurses top the list of most trus­ted pro­fes­sion­als, ahead of med­ic­al doc­tors, clergy, and cer­tainly politi­cians.”

Talk With Me Baby has also “been de­ployed to the state’s nearly 200 WIC clin­ics, where WIC nu­tri­tion­ists are its cham­pi­on.”

“The idea is to reach all At­lanta-area new­borns, re­gard­less of fam­ily back­ground or in­come, by 2017 and all new­borns in the state by 2020. Fitzger­ald says the state is on track to reach those goals. It’s too early to tell the real im­pact of the pro­gram, but ini­tial eval­u­ations are be­ing con­duc­ted.”

Behind the scenes, the initiative has widespread support from Georgia’s Department of Public Health and its Department of Education; Emory University’s School of Nursing and Department of Pediatrics; the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; the Atlanta Speech School’s Rollins Center for Language and Literacy; and Get Georgia Reading – Georgia’s Campaign for Grade Level Reading; as well as the United Way of Greater Atlanta.

And in 2014, at his Early Education Summit, President Obama gave the program a shout-out, and noted its bipartisan appeal saying:

“For sixteen years, every child in Oklahoma has been guaranteed a preschool education. Georgia is building on their successful preschool program by launching something called ‘Talk With Me Baby’ — which sounds like an Al Green song, but is actually — I’m not singing. But it’s actually a program to make sure language learning begins at the very first weeks of a child’s life. Now, let’s face it — Oklahoma and Georgia are not places where I do particularly well politically… But it just goes to show you that this is an issue that’s bigger than politics. It’s not a red issue or a blue issue. It’s about doing what’s best for our kids, for our country, and that’s an American issue.”

So talk to babies and let your policymakers know that they can help promote these conversations, too.