Do Talking Toys Promote Language Development?

Stephanie Specht's picture
By Stephanie Specht on February 10, 2016

Studies have shown that the key to early learning and language development for babies is talking, lots of it. So when you pick up that talking electronic toy at the store you might think you are helping your little one develop his language skills, but are you really? 

A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics took a closer look to find out if electronic talking toys that are marketed as early language promoters were truly helping or if they were just a hindrance. 

The study focused on 24 babies between the ages of 10 and 16 months old. Parents were given traditional toys such as books, shape sorters and stacking blocks, as well as electronic talking toys, including a baby cell phone, a baby laptop and a talking farm toy. Each toy was played with separately over the course of three days and each play session was recorded.  

When the researchers listened back to the recorded play sessions, it became apparent that it was not so much what they were hearing but more about what they were not hearing. When the parent and baby played with a traditional toy, the researchers heard the baby making sounds and the parent talking, but when they played with an electronic toy, all the researchers heard was the toy.

So, does that affect the baby’s early language skills? Yes, because early language development is not just about hearing words.

What is at the heart of language development is the social interaction between the parents and the child?

Talking to your child and engaging with him/her is the best way to stimuate your baby's brain and to promote good language development. Chilren look to us for guildance so they are significantly more receptive to us than a talking toy.

In the study, researchers found overall that books were far superior when it came to promoting parents/child interaction, but more traditional toys like blocks, shape sorters and puzzle type games also stimulated much more back and forth conversation between parents and baby than any of the electronic toys. Therefore, parents are encouraged to go for books and the simplest toys such as those mentioned in the study (blocks, puzzles, shape sorters) and also increase engagement with their child. The more parents play and talk to their child, the better off he/she will be.

To promote language and early learning skills, the prescription is pretty simple: Talk and Play!

  • Read a book and explore the power of language by showing your baby what words mean, how things sound and help baby make the connection between the words, sounds and objects in the books.
  • Give your baby a play-by-play of what you are doing with him at that moment. For example, as you get your son dressed in the morning or as you feed him his dinner talk about what you are doing.
  • Put the smart phone away and get down on the floor with your baby and play together. Pick the toys that engage both of you and promote a lot of back and forth interaction and conversation.

Remember that talking toys and electronics have a role, but they can't replace parent/child interaction.

If you have concerns or questions about your baby’s language development, ask your pediatrician for more tips and information. 

This article was reviewed by Carilion Children's physicians.