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30 Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain Review and Takeaways

This book review of 30 Million Words talks about the key parenting takeaways and summary of tips from Dr. Suskind’s book. This post may contain affiliate links. 
The most important thing you can do for your child’s future is to talk to them. Talking to your kids is important, but “the most important?” If you’re skeptical, keep reading. 
Today I’m talking about one of the most interesting parenting books that has been the easiest to understand and implement. I remember reading about a study when I was pregnant with Lincoln that talked about the importance of talking to your child. It was part of the only parenting book I read before I had kids and I took it to heart. I used to narrate every minute of our morning, trying hard to hit the 38 words per minute I needed to get to the 30 million number.
30 million / 3 years / 365 days / 12 hours (waking) / 60 minutes = about 38
The author of 30 Million Words: Building A Child’s Brain, Dr. Suskind is a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon who studied the disparity between children who had parents who spoke to them regularly and those who heard fewer words in the first three years of life. The results astounded her.

The research that led to the book:

The study that lead to Suskind’s book (and that was touched on in that first parenting book I read) was Hart & Risley 30 Million Word Gap study conducted in the 1980’s. Through meticulous data collection, Hart and Risley stumbled upon a wide gap between children from low-income families and children from high-income families. If you set aside their financial differences, they found that by the time a child is ready to enter Kindergarten, a child from a low-income family will have heard 30 million fewer words than a child from a high-income family. 30,000,000. That is a big gap!

So it turns out my early math for thirty million words in three years was incorrect; your kids need to hear more than 30 million words – but that’s a good start.

Studies have shown that by the time a child is 3 years old, 80% of their brain has developed. By the time a child is 6, 95% of their will have been developed. This shows that those first years, zero to three, are monumentally important for not only the brain development, but the future academic and personal success of each child. In addition to building kid’s vocabulary, parent-talk impacts executive function, social-emotional skills, and the academic trajectory of your child.

Summary of “30 Million Words”:

It turns out thirty million isn’t the number of words your child should hear before they’re three, but instead it’s a metaphor for a rich language environment. The book discusses three main things you can do to nurture this type of environment for your own kids.

Tune in.

This is based on the fact that learning is relational, that learning is founded in a relationship. For example, your child learns more when he hears words from you, when you’re making eye contact, on his level, than overhearing two strangers chatting in the supermarket. Tune in means being engaged with your child. Make eye contact when you talk to them. Use an animated voice. Smile.

Tune is also a reference to recognizing what your child is interested in. Any talking is better than no talking, but if you are focused in on what your little on is interested in, the conversation is going to be more meaningful and impactful. For example, if your ten month old is trying to grab something off the counter, instead of talking to her about the weather, start describing the cup sitting on the counter.

Talk more.

Tune in, and then start talking about what you’re doing. Start narrating. What do you say to a 5-month-old? You can talk about the dishes you’re doing, or the cookies you’re making.  You can tell her about the book you are reading or the time you first met her dad.

When you talk, speak to her like you’d speak to another adult. Don’t use a simplified vocabulary or basic sentence structure.

When it comes to toddlers, I try to talk to them the way I would an adult and when I say something I don’t think they’ll understand, I’ll then also rephrase it using words I do think they’ll know.

Take turns.

I know, having a conversation with someone who can’t really talk might seem foolish. But even from the beginning, babies are practicing having a conversation with gestures and babbles. You can respond and keep the conversation rolling.

Ask questions as you talk to give your child a chance to join in. Ask followup questions. If you really can’t understand them and don’t know what to ask, stick with something like “oh really?” “what else?” “what happened next?” or “tell me more!”

Main Takeaways from 30 million words

Now that you have the premise of “30 Million

Words” with Tune in, Talk more, and Take turns, here are a few other takeaways and more examples of what this looks like in everyday parenting.

Just Talk

Talking and language, especially in those first three years, are food for the developing brain. So just talk.
The words you say are better than the ones you meant to. And even if it’s hard to believe that explaining to your baby why you’re feeling a little bit tired this morning is important, you’ll be doing them a service.

“Parentese” is backed by science

You may think that using that little baby voice when you talk to your baby is just endearing, but research shows that the pitch changes in sing-song voices helps babies and toddlers pay attention to what you’re saying. It is engaging for them and a great way to talk to them early on.
This is likely because learning for babies is so relational and the sing-song voice reminds their brains they are in a safe, loving environment where they no longer have to work at meeting their basic survival needs and can move on to learning more about their surroundings.

Narrate Your Day:

If you’re ever at a loss of what to say to your child, just narrate your day. Talk about what you’re doing and what you’re seeing. This keeps it simple for you, but has the added benefit of helping label your child’s surroundings.
I remember the sleep deprived two month haze was thick as I snuggled my newborn on a mattress on the floor of the spare room. He had just woken up and I was still exhausted. I snuggled him in the silence and thought of that tiny little brain trying to grow.
“Mommy is very tired. I would love to still be sleeping. We are just snuggling here on this bed together and in a few minutes we’ll get up and make some dinner and then Daddy will come home. Are you excited to see Daddy? He’ll come home in his red car but right now we’re just snuggling on this bed. Can you see the light coming in through the window?”
I felt a little bit crazy, but those are the types of conversations we’d have on the couch, in the car, and wandering the aisle of the grocery store in those early months.

Math Talk

Try incorporating discussions about size, number, and relative values in your conversations and improve your child’s future math abilities.
In our house this looks like counting stairs when we’re walking places. It looks like discussing which slide is bigger at the park.
Behind us in line at the airport earlier this month I heard a mom ask her child, “why do you think that boy is older than your sister?” They went on to discuss how he was taller than her baby sister and was walking while her sister was still in a stroller. I love this example of continuing a conversation by asking your child to think more critically about an experience or judgement.
Studies show that in general parents use more math talk when talking with boys than with girls, even without meaning to. So if you’re a parent of a little girl, be extra intentional about including this in your discussions.


Put in in practice:  More examples of what this actually looks like at home

Thirty million sounds unfathomable, but, in reality, you get there one word at a time. Here are some examples that any parent can do to develop a rich language environment at home. As Suskind explains in the book, “Every routine and activity can be an opportunity for brain building and language.”

Getting dressed — and counting

  • Tune In: A parent notices that a toddler wants to help dress himself dressed in the morning because he’s trying to pull away and do his own snaps.
  • Talk More: “Your romper has five snaps. Can you help Mommy count them? One, two, three, four, five. Five snaps to snap and you’ll be ready to go with me to the park!”
  • Take Turns: Follow up your comment with, “would you like to help me do the snaps?” or “What are you excited to play with at the park?”

Playing dress-up — and learning about size and scale

  • Tune In: A child walks around the living room wearing his father’s shoes.
  • Talk More: “You’re wearing Daddy’s shoes. They sure are big on you! Dad has big feet so he needs big shoes. Look at the difference in Dad’s feet compared to yours. Yours are much smaller.”
  • Take Turns: “Whose shoes are bigger? Dad’s or yours? Right! Dad’s shoes are much bigger than yours. But your feet are growing. That’s why we needed to buy you new shoes last week. Your old shoes were squeezing your toes. They were much too small.”

Helping mom with a problem — and learning emotional self-regulation and problem-solving

  • Tune In: Mom is headed out the door but just realized she can’t find her keys. Mom explains without sounding annoyed or stressed.
  • Talk More: “I don’t believe I lost my keys again. This is the third time this week I’ve misplaced them. I’m really upset with myself. I’m going to be late for work. Can you help Mommy look for her keys?”
  • Take Turns: “Do you see the keys under the table? That was good thinking to look there because Mommy sometimes leaves her keys on top. They could have fallen. Should we look on the kitchen counter too?”
**some of these examples are taken directly from Dr. Suskind and interviews she’s done about her book.

30 Million Words: Building a Child's Brain - Book Review + Takeaways

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  1. Pingback: Favorite Parenting Books | Elisabeth McKnight
  2. Thirty million words isn’t the total number of words your child should be exposed to – it’s the difference between the number of words children in language-rich environments hear and the number that children in language-poor environments hear.