A ‘Light Touch’ Intervention Gets Mothers Talking to Their Babies

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This figure is a bar graph titled, Maternal outreach to promote verbal engagement with infants.  The y-axis is labeled, standard deviation change, and ranges from 0 to 0.14, increasing in increments of 0.02.  The x-axis has 4 categories, arranged in descending order of greatest value to lowest value going from left to right: Mother’s belief Index, Mother’s behavior index, Child Language Score, and Child development index. Mother’s belief and behavior index is around 0.12, child language score is just above 0.10, and child development index is just under 0.10 The note on the figure reads, Effect of intervention in Ghana showing recent or expectant mothers a 3-minute informational video, aimed at raising verbal engagement with infants, and giving them a themed wall calendar. The source line reads, Source: Researchers’ calculations using Endline data.

The importance of verbal engagement for infant language and cognitive development is well established, but many low-income parents do not converse with their infants regularly. This compounds the disadvantages faced by children in poorer families. In Informing Mothers about the Benefits of Conversing with Infants: Experimental Evidence from Ghana (NBER Working Paper 31264), Pascaline Dupas, Camille FalezanSeema Jayachandran, and Mark P. Walsh report on the effects of a cheap, scalable intervention designed to change mothers’ beliefs about conversing with their infants.

Six to eight months after North Ghanaian mothers watched an animated video and put up wall calendar reminders, their children displayed gains in language and cognitive skills.

While parents universally use baby talk to soothe an infant or get their attention, engaging in a richer form of infant-directed speech varies by socioeconomic status within and across societies. One explanation for low parental investment in conversing with infants is inaccurate beliefs about the benefits. The researchers hypothesize that because infants are not noticeably responsive to language, and the benefits materialize only later, talking to babies might not be a practice that arises organically. Rather, it may emerge only if parents are explicitly taught its value.

Pursuing this idea, the researchers develop an inexpensive informational intervention that consists of showing a recent or expectant mother a three-minute video about parent-infant conversations. The video is a simple animation with voice-over describing the value of parent-infant conversations. It encourages the mother to speak to her baby and to tell other family members to do so as well.

Mothers were also given wall calendars with visual reminders of the video’s message. Beyond reminding the mother, the calendar also facilitates common knowledge among household members about the lessons, and supports formation of a parent-infant conversation habit by instructing treatment respondents to put stars on the calendar in each week in which they converse with their infant every day.

To evaluate the intervention’s effects, the researchers randomly selected 705 Northern Ghanaian women from a sample of 1,408 who were pregnant or had an infant. The video was shown and calendars were distributed to women visiting local government health clinics for pre- or postnatal checkups. Data from a follow-up survey conducted six to eight months later showed that mothers who received the intervention reported greater belief in the benefits of verbally engaging with infants, more frequent parent-infant conversations, and more advanced language and cognitive skills in their children. The intervention appears to deliver a 1 standard deviation improvement in a child’s cognitive or language development at an estimated cost of between $4 and $8 at scale. The researchers conclude that this “light-touch” intervention is more cost-effective than either home visits or community-based programs.

The intervention analyzed in this study could be implemented at scale by showing the video in waiting rooms of prenatal care centers and asking health workers to hand out the calendars to patients during their visits.

— Lauri Scherer