Have you ever tickled a baby's tummy, wiggled its toes, caressed its cheek, touched its nose or chin without ever uttering a sound? Most people don't — can't? — stay silent when touching a baby. We talk to them. We coo and make funny sounds. We almost never touch a baby without uttering some form of speech, whether it's formal language or the gibberish of baby talk.

Baby foot massageA Purdue University researcher and her team of colleagues have discovered that touching a baby could be as important for its speech development as hearing words and sentences. To determine if the human touch improves a baby's language development, Amanda Seidl and her team of researchers conducted two experiments using 48 babies at the Indiana university's Infant Speech Lab. Seidl, a specialist in language acquisition, is an assistant professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences.

Of particular interest to Seidl is how a baby distinguishes one word from the next when it hears a continuous stream of words it doesn't understand. "Parents pause before saying an infant's name but they almost never do so for other words," according to Seidl.

The 48 babies Seidl's team used in the experiments were all 4 months old and all being raised in a household where English is the only language spoken. One of each child's parents assisted with the experiments. Half the babies were in the "dobita" experiment and the other half in the no-touch experiment.

The "Dobita" Experiment
During this experiment, each child sat on its parent's lap facing the person conducting the experiment while a previously recorded stream of nonsense words was played. Every time the made-up word "dobita" was spoken on the recording, the experimenter touched the baby's knee. It happened 24 times.

The made-up word "lepoga" was also played 24 times but the experimenter touched the child only once, on its elbow, when the word was heard. The experimenter touched the baby 23 more times at random during the recording.

Afterward, a language preference study was conducted and almost all the baby's exhibited familiarity with the word dobita.

The No Touch Experiment
The scenario was the same for the second group of babies except the experimenter touched his or her own chin or eyebrow instead of touching the baby at all. During the language preference study, the babies did not exhibit familiarity with any of the words on the recording, including dobita.

Words have no value until a meaning is attached to them. Seidl says it's no wonder the first words a baby learns are often body parts. Caregivers often touch a baby's body parts and say the name of the part at the same time. Touching the part at the same time it's identified by word signals the baby that the word matches the part that's touched.

Source: Patterson Neubert, Amy. "Study: Touch influences how infants learn language." Purdue News. Purdue University. Apr 22, 2014. Web. May 1, 2014.