The more language, the better – allegedly. (Image: Tina Tiller)
The more language, the better – allegedly. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyMarch 5, 2024

How many goddamn words should I be saying to my baby?

The more language, the better – allegedly. (Image: Tina Tiller)
The more language, the better – allegedly. (Image: Tina Tiller)

I read yet another study about toddlers, screen time and language development, and it sent me off the deep end. 

Another day, another alarming study about how bad screen time is for kids. This morning, Australian researchers warned that the average three-year-old could be missing out on more than 1,100 adult words and 194 conversations per day because of the family’s use of screens. This is, to use the scientific term, bad. 

This isn’t a groundbreaking finding – a study like this drops every six months, by my count – but what’s new here is that researchers bypassed self-reporting by parents by using a Fitbit-like device that detected screen time in the house, so parents couldn’t gently massage the numbers. And the amount of screen time detected was, to use the scientific term, shitloads.

I have an 18-month-old daughter and my greatest relief is to plonk her in front of Moana while I read Substack newsletters on my phone, so this checks out. I’m also a modern woman, so I dart between neurotic vigilance about her screen time and mine, limiting both with scrupulous discipline, and a kind of bratty, “Don’t pile yet another fucking expectation of perfect motherhood on me” defiance, as I pass my weaning infant an UP&GO and load the 10th episode in a row of Bluey. 

But as comfortable as that latter posture is – my checked-out, lazy parenting is feminist, actually – I can’t really rest in it for long. It’s just patently obvious to me that phones are doing something devastating to the relationship between lots of parents and their kids, and I didn’t need scientists to tell me that. My sister is a nurse and when she worked in paediatrics, she’d tell me chilling stories about children living essentially abandoned lives because their parents were hooked on devices. “Heaps of parents just don’t talk to their kids any more,” she said to me. “At all.” It’s not like I haven’t noticed them, either. Mothers at the playground who scroll on their phones for tens upon tens of minutes, dead eyed while their toddlers tug on their sleeves and whine for a shred of attention, their bids for human connection not even swatted away but simply ignored, as though they weren’t even alive. 

That’s hideous, I’d think as I watched them. And then, Is that me?

That question always gets the neurotic vigilance wheel spinning again. So when I received an email about the then-embargoed Australian study last week, scanning over keywords like “1,100 fewer adult words” and “screen time” thinking fuck, fuck, fuck, before I knew it I had joined the press briefing with the lead author of the study, Dr Mary Brushe, a young and immaculately progressive researcher who acknowledged the indigenous land she stood on before politely answering questions. I fired my most pressing one at her: How many words should parents be saying to their toddlers? 

There’s a very wide range of averages in Australia, she replied: parents are speaking anywhere from 5,000 to 35,000 words per day to their kids. “But the more language, the better,” she told me.


This was a great line to get me bouncing between neurosis and defiance again. I went home and started prattling inanely to my daughter. No Moana tonight, baby. We’re TALKING. Doctor’s orders. Do you like that banana? Do you like the ‘nana? It’s a ‘nana. It’s a BA-na-na. How many was that? One, two, three… fuck, this is going to take ages. Who the hell is hitting 35,000 a day?

The defiant mode kicked in. This is bullshit, I thought. If I speak 35,000 words per day to my baby, won’t that cause its own set of problems? Namely, raising a bloviating gasbagging bore, and also becoming one? 

After following this train of thought for a while, I developed a working theory that Brushe and her gang of researchers are actually peddling middlebrow snobbery under the guise of science, based on a throwaway recommendation she made in the press briefing about swapping out your baby’s YouTube videos for music, or – and I quote – podcasts. 

I didn’t say a single word to my daughter for about 20 minutes. I was too busy tinkering with my theory. 

I fixated on “the more language, the better” for the entire evening. Brushe said so many other things in the briefing; empathetic, reasonable things (the podcast line aside). She said she didn’t want to put blame or pressure on parents, who know their kids better than anyone and rightfully make their own decisions about how much phone use is appropriate. She said screens are a reality in our lives now, and it’s not about avoiding them entirely, it’s about striking a balance. For example, if your toddler is watching some crap on YouTube, why not sit down with them and chit-chat about it?

I’m paraphrasing, I think. I can’t really remember her exact words, especially all the blah-blah-blah about balance and moderation. I’m just thinking about the words. Thousands and thousands of them, that I need to say to my baby. The more thousands, the better – that’s what the doctor said. A daily firehose of words. I will blow a gale of words at my baby that puff up her cheeks like a skydiver hurtling towards earth or a dog’s head out the car window. And I will banish the screens, once and for all, for they subtract too many thousands of words. And that’s bad. It’s actually so, so bad. God, how many precious, tiny, developmentally stunted babies are out there in the world, hearing a grand total of zero words a day from their feckless, drooling mothers and fathers, faces aglow with blue light as their helpless progeny give up all hope of human interaction? Are we absolutely, irreparably munted as a species, and do we deserve it? I guess we may as well get our thrills where we can. Let’s fire up some more Bluey, baby, I’m reading Numb at the Lodge. 

Wait, there was one other thing Brushe said that I do remember. She cited the World Health Organization’s recommendation for screen time for kids: none at all for babies under two, and no more than one hour per day for children aged two to four. Then Brushe said the overwhelming feedback she gets from parents is that these guidelines are totally unrealistic. She looked very kind and gentle when she said that, and I got the sense she felt for parents; that maybe she was even a parent herself. 

Anyway, I think I can stick to the WHO guidelines as they are, thanks very much. All I need to do is keep careening my family’s screen time between neurotic abstention and defiant binging. We’ll hit that average in the long run. 

Keep going!