Students track responses of mothers, ‘others’
Infant brain development is a hot research topic, particularly as it pertains to communication. There is widespread interest in understanding how babies go from babbling to forming their first words, with the ultimate goal of determining how caregivers can help nurture infant language development.
Caregiver-infant interaction is dynamic, with the former’s communication influenced not only by the latter’s actions but by their level of experience with children. These differences are at the root of research conducted by University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point psychology lecturer Rachel Albert
and a group of her students.
“Parents are really responsive to their babies’ babbles, but they respond differently depending on the situation, the type of babble,” says Albert. “Our work focuses on the moment-to-moment interactions and sounds the baby is making – does that change how the parent responds?
“We look at categorizing the types of sounds babies make, those nice ‘ba bas’ versus fussy, less mature sounds. Do parents respond differently to those sounds? Are they more likely to label an object a ball after a ‘ba’ sound and ask ‘Are you OK?’ after a fussy sound?”
Students assisting Albert with this research include Lily Molik, Emily Lindberg, Haley Roenneburg, Jena VanderLogt and Rebecca Pletka. The group has been involved with all aspects of the research, starting with redeveloping the coding system used to categorize caregivers’ responses to infant vocalizations.
They then supervised participants in the Department of Psychology’s laboratory, which was set with a computer screen, headphones, a blanket to simulate the presence of a baby, and cameras to record responses. Participants then watched videos of infants making a variety of sounds and were instructed to react naturally. Each subject experienced 80 to 90 examples.
Molik and Roenneburg focused on developing the coding system, and all students took an active role in recruiting and testing participants and analyzing the data. “I knew coming in I’d be able to do a lot of work and help out, but didn’t realize how hands-on I would be in the process,” says Molik. “It was a blessing to get so much experience with the research process.”
The group found that inexperienced caregivers were more likely to respond to infant vocalization of vowels with questions than experienced caregivers. When attempting to imitate infant sounds, this group was more likely to miss the mark – “They sounded nothing like the sounds and the infant made,” says Molik. Also, experienced
caregivers regularly used a wider variety of responses than their inexperienced counterparts.
This spring the students had the opportunity to present their research at the Society for Research in Child Development biennial conference, the largest one of its kind for developmental psychologists, with around 8,000 people attending. Albert says the UW-Stevens Point group was unique in being one of only a handful of undergraduates to present.
“Presenting at a national conference as a undergraduate gave these students the opportunity to showcase their work in front of the leading scientists in the field,” says Albert. “They made connections with potential graduate school advisers, putting faces to names they’d previously only seen cited in their textbooks.”
While the group had relatively little trouble finding non-mothers to participate in the research, recruiting mothers from the community has proven to be more of a challenge. Albert anticipates bringing in the first mothers during the fall.
Molik and Lindberg envision a wide range of future directions for the study, including testing differences between fathers and non-fathers, analyzing the impact of caregivers’ ages on perceptions, and better definition of what constitutes caregiving experience.
“These ladies have all been with me four or five semesters,” says Albert. “To have them stick with it for multiple semesters has allowed them to really take ownership of the research. They came in doing my project but they are starting to drive the future direction. They’ve stuck with it and are developing their own projects.”