Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Day Dreaming" Among Students May Not Be All Bad

As school begins across the country, you may remember back on your own days as a student. I bet many of us recall sitting in class and our mind began to wander or "day dream." Or maybe it wasn't you, but a classmate you (or the teacher) could tell was "day dreaming" and not focused on the task at hand. Well, at the time, this may have garnered some disapproving looks from the teacher, but it turns out that a certain amout of "day dreaming" can be quite useful for the brain.

In recent years, researchers have begun to look into what the brain does during these times of "day dreaming" or what they call "inward attention." They are beginning to see how time spent focused inward may actually help students focus better on outward tasks. Some research has shown that when times of inward reflection were incorporated into the school day, students often became less anxious, performed better on tests, and were able to plan more effectively.

This makes so much sense to me. In our fast-paced, over-stimulating world, it is becoming rare to have a moment of inward reflection. To find this time, you really do have to plan it into your day. For someone with a more introverted personality, such as myself, I find this "down time" to be crucial to my mental health and well-being. I think the same must be true for children. Children are learning and absorbing information almost constantly, especially at school. It's great to be able to allow them some time to just day dream or let their mind wander without having to worry about the end product. I have noticed this even with my 3-year-old. After playing for awhile, he will often just lay down and drink something or hold a toy, seemingly "doing nothing." After a few minutes, however, he will perk up and say something clever or begin playing in a new way. It seems that, given the opportunity, kids will carve out this "day dreaming" time for themselves.

We all know the importance of children learning to focus their attention on outward tasks. In fact, this is one of the key skills of childhood. Focus and attention are consistently linked to all sorts of positive outcomes for kids. An inward focus, however, may be equally important for children to develop intellectually, as well as socially and morally.

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Friday, August 5, 2016

Making Exceptions To Your Parental Rules

Parenting is hard.  I like to teach my children to take responsibility for their own actions as much as possible, but once in a while I find it necessary to break that rule.  My son was supposed to go to High Adventure on Thursday morning.  Throughout the day on Wednesday I asked, "Shouldn't you be packing?  Do you want your list?" 

He wasn't making a big deal out of it at all.  Packing would be easy, he thought, so he waited until bedtime.  That's when he discovered that his backpack that his brother borrowed weeks ago had old macaroni and cheese spilled in the bottom of it.  It smelled terrible and he knew if he woke me up to complain at the last minute that his backpack smelled like vomit and he didn't have another one to use, I would be extremely unhappy with him.

I woke up the next morning thinking I was going to drive him to their meeting location and he was in his jammies.  "You're not going?!" I exclaimed.  We had paid for this trip.  I filled out all necessary annoying forms.  And the mac and cheese excuse was beyond ridiculous to me.  Now I was going to have him home for the next two days and he was going to have no privileges.  Not a fun time for any of us. 

A friend had asked if he was coming because the boys were supposed to come over and pick up their meals.  I told her about the situation and that no, he wasn't going after all.

That's when his Scout leader showed up at our door.  In most situations, I would have said, "Thank you very much, but he wasn't responsible and will not be able to join you", but I felt like my son needed to bond with these boys and have the experience.  His leader said, "I have an extra backpack you can borrow!"  My friend who had all of the camping meals drove them over to our house. 

They all left an hour late because of my son.  How annoying that must have been.  At the same time, it was a sweet example of going after the one and making him feel loved and accepted.  I even found myself making sandwiches for him so he wouldn't be hungry, which is so not my style when it comes to natural consequences.

Just a couple months ago, two of my other boys were supposed to go on a campout with a hike and neither of them brought a water bottle after I told them to wash them out.  One leader said, "Oh, we brought extra water."  I said, "No, they deliberately ignored me, so they can stay home."  They were furious with me, but that's what felt right in that scenario. 

Tell me about some times you made exceptions to your rules! 

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Princess Culture and Gender Stereotypes

research study about Disney princesses? Now this is research we can really use in our daily lives as parents. As a mom of boys, I have secretly been relieved that I didn't have to go through the "princess phase." But wait! This research discusses boys too. Let's take a closer look.

The study involved 198 preschool-age children and examined their exposure to Disney princess media and toys. The researchers then considered if there was a relationship between exposure to Disney princess items and gender-stereotyped behavior.

If you have a daughter of preschool age, this is probably the study you have been waiting for for years. I think most of us parents have wondered if all the princess-saturated media and toys actually have an impact on kids, particularly girls.

From this study, it looks like the princess culture does seem to have some impact on girls and boys behavior. The more girls and boys interacted with princesses, the more likely they were to exhibit female gender-stereotypical behavior a year later. So this means girls acted in more traditional female ways (e.g., avoiding getting dirty, avoiding risks), but boys did too. Of course, the impact on boys was less dramatic because they had less interaction with princess items.

Gendered Values

Of course, the irony of this study is that what we in our American culture value in one gender is not what we value in the other. Culturally, we try to encourage girls to think outside the "girly" box. Many parents want their girls to take more risks and avoid falling into the stereotypical passive female role. While hypermasculinity still reigns, we as parents try to foster a softer, more caring boy mindset.

So it seems, that while the princess culture represents what we want girls to avoid, it illustrates the gentler side we want boys to develop.

So what is a parent to do? Ban all Disney princess items from your home? As in all things parenting, moderation is usually the key. It's helpful for kids to play with a variety of toys and crafts, not just character-themed items.

I think it's also crucial to really understand your particular child's personality. Was your daughter a "girly girl" from the start or did you see an increase in female-stereotyped behaviors as she was exposed to more princess culture? Does she seem to copy the poses or behavior of princeses in a way that you don't want to support? Ask her what characteristics of the princesses she really likes? Is it just their appearance or something else about them. The same could be said for boys. Is your son really bought into the hyper-masculine "tough guy" role or did this increase as he was exposed to more media that supported this role?

As KJ Dell'Antonia smartly points out in her New York Times article, it might be helpful to point out to girls the characteristics of princesses that do not conform to the gender stereotype. For example, illustrate how some of the princesses are very active in deciding their own fate, or how they use their intelligence to get out of a difficult situation.

One aspect of the princess culture that this study did not particularly address is the emphasis on appearance and the sometimes sexualized poses of princess characters that is seen. While these aspects are sort of wrapped up in the overall princess culture, it would be interesting to see if these particular characteristics were adopted more by girls who have a lot of princess interaction. I think most parents would not want to support media or toys that put forth the image of women being only valued for appearance. This I think could be the rallying point for parents of both boys and girls. I think most of us would agree that our adult culture emphasizes appearance and sexualization enough already, our children, both girls and boys, do not need to be inculcated into a culture of devaluing women at a young age.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Screen-Free Activity Ideas for Summer Break

Summer break is now in full swing, and the struggle has become real for parents as they balance screen-time and outside time with their children. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Pokemon Go has helped get people outside, but still with their screens. It is often recommended to have no more than two hours of recreational screen time a day.

Let’s discuss some ideas of screen-free activities that you can do with your children:

  • Visit the library. Borrow a book or two while you are there to bring home and read. Find a book series that you can get immersed into over the summer break. 
  • Become a lego master builder. Dump out the lego bucket and start building something without the instructions, let the imagination flow. If you’re not at master builder level, then dig up an instruction booklet and follow the directions together. 
  • Pull out a cook book and make some delicious treats. And remember to make a mess, not just because it adds cleaning time, which means less screen time; but because baking isn’t fun unless you make a mess. 
  • Find a body of water. Whether this is a pool or a lake, spend some time splashing around and getting soaked. Plus, if it is a hot day, this is a great way to cool off. 
  • Make art. Whether this is painting, drawing, photography, crafting or playing music. Follow what Neil Gaiman said, Make Good Art. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just have fun and maybe learn a little. 
  • Play a game. Not a video game, a board or card game. Dust off the game that they family got for Christmas and make it a family night. Maybe consider inviting friends over. 
  • Play a sport. This doesn’t have to be an organized sport. Just go shoot some hoops, catch a ball, throw a frisbee, skip a rope, or pedal a bike, just to name a few ideas. Again, Wii Fit or Wii Sports doesn’t count! 
Most of all, be creative, have fun together, and enjoy the screen-free time. These were just a couple of ideas to get you started in discovering your screen-free activities this summer.

Put the gadgets and controllers down, and have screen-free fun this summer!

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Friday, July 1, 2016

Being A Team With Your Child's Teacher

This picture is explained under #1
A couple of my kids require almost no communication with their teachers throughout the school year.  But my one child in particular?  I love him.  He gets lots of attention because of his "interesting" behavior.  When Summer comes, I breathe a sigh of relief because I no longer have to go back and forth with his teacher(s) over email due to the issues he's having.  If you have multiple children like this, I salute you.  I don't know how you do it.  By the end of the year, my attitude is pretty much, "Good luck, son!" 

I've found that conspiring against my children with their teachers is quite helpful, although I don't tell them I'm doing that. It's a fun surprise when they learn I know something that they didn't think I knew.  Here are some effective ways to be a team with your child's teacher.

1.  Explain your child's personality and difficulties at the beginning of the year.  As much as my son's teachers want him to advocate for himself, he gets anxiety, especially at the beginning of the year, and because he's afraid to draw attention to himself or that he will get in trouble for not understanding or hearing the first time, he misses some very important information that will affect him for months.  During my son's first grade year, I had to explain that the above picture didn't make him mentally deranged and no, the little girl wasn't "crying blood".  The student teacher wrote, "I thought it was disturbing."  This was my son's creative way of saying he thought the picture was lame.  Honestly, that's one of the ugliest illustrations I've ever seen.  He said, "The girl fell down jumping rope, so she was bleeding."  The thick blue lines are her streams of tears. But yes, her face is covered in blood and blood is dripping from her face.  He wrote, "WAAAAAAAH!!!!  Blood is dripping!"  OK, maybe he was mentally disturbed that year, but he got better. You can only imagine my joy when another son got the same teacher and during the first week, he drew a picture of himself frowning on the toilet and wrote, "I had a hard time pooping.  My mom said I needed to eat more fruits and vegetables and water."  I can't believe she didn't say a thing to me about it, but I bet she thought she was in for another hard year.  No, he's one of my easy children.  He just happened to be constipated. 
2.  Work hard to understand your child.  If you don't know what's going on with them, you can't help the teacher.  My son was constantly saying "I don't know" when he did know.  He just didn't want everyone looking at him.  This was something I learned when they did testing in preschool.  He had a meltdown because they did it in front of the class.  His teacher thought he wasn't learning anything and I explained, "He tells me all of the things he learned when he gets home.  If you ask him privately, he knows all the answers."  There was also a time in first grade where he was really proud of his writing, but when his reading skills picked up, he cried out, "This doesn't make any sense!"  As he started to realize his writing needed work, he became really upset, deciding to get under the table at school, scribbling on his work.  His teacher didn't know he was doing it because he was mad at himself. 
3.  Together you can expose your child for lying.  Does your child's story seem fishy to you?  Ask their teacher what happened.  My son went through a phase where he didn't want his work judged, so he wouldn't hand in his homework that he worked hours on.  I had received feedback that he wasn't handing in anything.  One morning I asked his teacher, "Did he hand in his homework this morning?"  "No, he cried because he said he forgot it."  I said, "I put it in his backpack myself.  Please look."  She wrote back, "He did NOT want to give me that homework!"  I don't think she had encountered a child who was willing to do the work without getting credit for it. 
4.  Come up with consequences together.  Sometimes the consequences at home just aren't enough.  There were a few times where I talked to their teachers and asked them to keep my child in for recess until they finished what they were supposed to.  My son was having trouble listening and completing things, so his teacher and I came up with a system just for him.  He was supposed to rate himself for various things at the end of the week, she rated him, and if he had an acceptable report at the end of the week, he was allowed to stay up and watch a movie with me. 
5.  Communicate when problems arise.  One of my son's had a spelling assignment where he had to look up the meaning of each word.  I was beyond horrified when he had to look up an animal, which was also the name of a very inappropriate woman.  The first thing to come up was an adult website.  I quickly wrote to his teacher so she could inform other parents, "Do not let your child Google that word."  She was grateful and removed the word from the spelling list for the next year.
6.  Check your child's grades and missing assignments regulary.  And when you see red flags, follow up.  With my older children, I usually have them contact their teachers themselves, but when my high schooler saw he was getting a D in choir, he was really upset.  I asked his teacher and he said, "That was a mistake.  He actually got mixed up with another kid."  My son really excels at singing and does almost every optional thing there is, so a bad grade didn't make sense at all.
7.  Get clarification when your child's explanation sounds "interesting".  My son came home and quickly admitted he got an F on a test, but he said, "My teacher says it's normal for this test because it's really hard."  "Your teacher gives everyone a test where they're destined to fail?  That doesn't make sense to me."  Of course, I couldn't resist asking his teacher.  The teacher replied, "I told the kids if they don't come to the study help after school, they are likely to fail."  Ah ha!  So I asked my son, "There was study help and you didn't go to it?!"  "I didn't know how to take the activity bus."  "AND YOU THINK YOU COULDN'T HAVE ASKED ME SO I COULD HELP YOU SOLVE THAT PROBLEM?!"  Another son recently played dumb when it came to in class assignments, which he got all zeros on.  "Oh, a bunch of us didn't realize we were supposed to do those."  Mmm hmm.  LIES!!!  He didn't make this realization until he knew I was checking up on him. 

Dealing with school issues is one of the hardest parts about parenting for me.  All those times I said I wanted a baby?  I was really saying, "I would like an email home from a child's teacher that he said son of a (blank) in the lunch room and had to go talk to the principal."  That might have happened to me too. 

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

You Can Survive Colic

I recently came across a very interesting article from The New Yorker entitled, The Colic Conundrum and oh, how I could relate to this article. My son (now 19 months) was quite fussy as an infant and although he was never formally diagnosed with colic, I believe that's probably the only label that would describe his behavior. Although he did not have all the "symptoms" described in this article, he did have to be held, bounced, rocked, and nursed the majority of the day in order for him not to cry for long periods. He slept fairly well at night (2-3 hours at a time) but in his early months the only way he slept that long was for him to sleep on either my or my husband's chest. Additionally, he HATED the car seat. Once strapped in it, he might be content for 5-10 minutes and then it was blood-curdling screaming the rest of the time. Needless to say, we didn't leave the house much. I rarely discuss my son on this blog, but I felt like this topic was one where my personal experience might help other new moms out there who are struggling with this difficult issue.

The main point of the New Yorker article was that, despite years of research, doctors and psychologists really do not know much about what causes colic or how to treat it. Before having a child, I always thought colic was a gastrointestinal problem in which the baby has a difficult time digesting milk and this causes stomach pain. Although some infants with colic do have digestion problems, including reflux, many babies do not and simply seem to cry for no reason.

One researcher who has done quite a bit of work in recent years on the subject of colic believes that these babies are "hypersensitive to normal stimuli"; that is, "they perceive and react to changes in their bodies (such as hunger or gas pangs) or in their environment (such as loud noises or the experience of being touched) more acutely than do other babies." Although I don't know if there is much research to support this hypothesis, I think this is one of the best theories I've heard. Like many parents, I had read Dr. Harvey Karp's The Happiest Baby on the Block, while pregnant and I understood the neurological immaturity of newborns. Dr. Karp argues that the first three months of a newborn's life are really like a "fourth trimester" in which they have to adapt to life outside the womb. Unlike other mammals, humans are born still being very immature, both physically and neurologically. They go from existing in a warm, dark environment of constant movement, noise, and nourishment to a world that is bright, cold, and by their standards, quiet.

After carefully observing my son for weeks, I began to see that this theory seemed to fit him. He was especially sensitive to stimuli and had very little ability to self-soothe. Of course, no newborn has much ability to self-soothe but you may notice that some young infants will suck on their hands or take a pacifier. For others, like my son, none of these strategies offer comfort. My son was very alert and for lack of a better word, jumpy. He often startled easily at the sound of the air conditioner turning on or cars driving by. On the other hand, he was soothed by the sound of things like the hair dryer or the vacuum cleaner (great tip from Dr. Karp's book!). He loved constant motion like being in the front pack baby carrier while bouncing on an exercise ball.

Theories aside, I write all this to say: colic does get better! This is hard to hear if you are trying to cope with a baby who seems to cry endlessly, but know that it does get easier. Around 3 months by son started having longer and longer periods of awake, happy time and by 6 months he had established a fairly regular sleep schedule and would actually nap during the day for more than 30 minutes at a time. I am happy to report that now he is a very happy, healthy, active (climbing on everything!) toddler who has learned to self-soothe and will actually tolerate the car seat.

One issue the New Yorker article points out that I feel is very important is the fact that having a baby with colic often puts moms at risk for depression and a poor infant-parent relationship. It's easy to see why this could happen. Professor Barry Lester who studies colic, describes it this way,

The most common thing our patients say is, ‘I must be doing something wrong.’ It triggers a whole cycle: the mother feels inadequate and unable to parent effectively. And when these mothers get angry at their baby, they feel guiltier: ‘How can I get angry at my baby?’ The problem spirals out of control.”

Feeling as though you cannot do anything to soothe your child is very discouraging, but it's important to realize that, in most cases, you are doing all you can do by simply responding to the baby's needs as best you can. Even if the baby continues to cry despite the rocking, feeding, etc., I firmly believe that the baby internalizes the fact that you are there helping him/her try to cope. Studies have shown that babies who are responded to promptly (especially in the first 3 months) will, over time, cry less frequently.

If you have a colicky baby, it's also important to seek out support when you need it. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful husband, parents, and in-laws to help provide support (and keep things in perspective) when I needed it. Even if you can find a trusted person to just hold the baby for an hour so you can take a break and gather your thoughts, it will make a difference in your state of mind.

You may feel (as I did) that colic "stole" the first few months of you and your baby's life together, but know that all the efforts you put forth for your baby will ultimately pay great dividends with a happy, content baby. In a few months when you see your baby contently playing with a toy, you will not take that happiness for granted.

Photo credit

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Friday, June 3, 2016

What To Do When Your Child Is Overweight

As a disclaimer, I'm not an expert, but I speak from experience. 

Encouraging a loved one to lose weight is one of the touchiest subjects that can be approached and whatever you say can really backfire.  I have a critical grandmother who caused a lot of damage with her girls who were not overweight, but just going through puberty and were developing hips and breasts.  They were absolutely beautiful!  I learned later from my kids' pediatrician that it's common for kids to bulk up at a certain age and then go through a major growth spurt.

I was injured at about 12 years old and it caused me to have to be much less physically active than I was before, just as puberty was approaching.  I wouldn't have been described as fat, but I gained weight rather suddenly.  One day we were dress shopping for a special outfit for the last day of school when my mom was trying to give me some self-awareness and pointed to my newly developed roll of fat on my back, "You know that's not supposed to be there, right?" 

I love my mom, but please, mothers.  Don't do this to your child.  They're not stupid.  We are our own worst critics and always will be.  Pointing out the problem isn't helpful.  Trying to put your child on a diet or nag them about overeating isn't going to fix things.  Eventually they're going to be out of the house and will have to make their own eating decisions, plus they will be self-conscious.  I don't like to exercise in public, which limits me to exercising at home.  I remember a male relative making fun of a slightly overweight woman who power walked all over town.  He laughed, "Better walk faster if you want to get rid of those thighs!"  She couldn't hear him, but I could.  What you say to your skinny friends and family will hurt later when they're not so skinny anymore.  They will know what you really think .

You have to lead by example.  You can't raise your family on unhealthy food and then determine that the child unlucky enough to be struggling with their weight needs to be singled out.  I gained weight eating what the rest of my family was eating.  My mom has always been quite thin, but doesn't eat healthy. She also has high cholesterol and triglycerides, plus a protein that indicates inflammation in the arteries.  No one wants to be lectured by a person who isn't living the lifestyle they say you should be living.

You can't go back and change what your family's diet typically consisted of, but you can slowly make changes to help your whole family become healthier. 

1.  Say no to soda.  I swore this off as a household staple over 5 years ago and I don't miss it.  I haven't had any this whole time.  There is absolutely no nutritional value in soda and it's bad for your teeth on top of that. At least make it a rare thing rather than something your fridge is always stocked with.

2.  Introduce whole grains.  I was raised on white bread and really don't enjoy the flavor of whole grain bread as much, but I have forced myself to use it more.  My kids don't want to touch it because they have been raised on white bread too.  If I were to do it all again, I would make sure my kids have a taste for whole grain bread.  Try whole grain pasta!  It's actually pretty good.  Experiment and see what your family likes. 

3.  Vow to cook more meals from scratch.  I get it.  I have five kids and some days are really hectic, but I try to avoid foods that have ingredients I can't pronounce.  Try doubling the recipe and freezing meals for later if you need convenience food.  If you buy ingredients in bulk, some of them you can chop up and freeze for later use such as onions or peppers. 

4.  Buy produce as a snack.  If you're having a movie night, there's no rule you have to eat candy.  Buy everyone's favorite fruit!  Maybe some nuts too.  My family absolutely devours watermelon.

5.  Limit TV time and invite everyone to do something active together.  It's hard to change the rules when your kids are accustomed to a certain way of life, but I find myself thinking a lot more often that the habits my kids have now are going to be what they do with their families.  How are their spouses going to feel?  Go swimming.  Play tennis.  Go for a walk together and play a game along the way.  Or even make the destination ice cream.  Make it a positive experience.  It's such a better bonding experience than watching TV!  I've been doing a healthy living challenge and eventually my daughter wanted to join me on walks.  We ended up going in the cold lake and she loved it!

6.  Try not to keep temptations in the house.  Especially if someone is prone to gorging on things, don't have it around.  On a bad day, I could really drown my feelings in ice cream.  If I don't have it, I'm more likely to choose fruit. 

7.  Help your kids find an activity they love.  I struggle with boredom when it comes to exercise, but I thrive when there's music involved.  It helps me feel much more energized!  Dancing has really worked for me as far as getting aerobic activity.  I loved gymnastics when I was younger and although it was very hard, I was always able to push myself towards harder things.  I have several friends whose children are quite overweight, but they were positive towards them and the kids were always involved in some kind of sport.  They seem to have a healthy self-image too. 

What have you done to help your family's health?  How do you approach the subject of weight? 

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Say It Again: Repetition Aides Language Development

We all know that young children love repetition. If you have been around a child under the age of 3 lately, you know this well. They repeat questions, they repeat words, they repeat actions....over and over again. For us adults, this is honestly kind of annoying, but for these little ones, this is learning at its best. Practice makes perfect, as the old saying goes. Little children know this well and they inherently know what their brains need.

It turns out that repetition is helpful for young children before they are even verbal. New research coming out of the University of Maryland is showing this clearly. In a recent study, researchers evaluated 121 infants (7 months of age) and their later language development at age 2. The authors specifically wanted to understand if the amount of repetition in language that the infants were exposed to was related to their later language development.

Not surprisingly, the researchers did find that repetition makes a difference. The more words mothers spoke to their infants, and the more repetition all predicted better language development at age 2. Researchers believe that this repetition may help prime children to understand how to "segment" words. Segmentation involves how children learn to break up fluent speech into individual words. Obviously, this is a crucial task that children must learn in order to learn language.

These findings are very instructive and helpful in thinking about how children learn language. For years, we have known that the number of words a child is exposed to early in life can have strong impact not only on their language development, but their lifelong academic trajectory. As I have written about before, this exposure (or lack thereof) can also present a source of inequality among children of differing socioeconomic groups. Children in lower socioeconomic groups tend to be exposed to fewer words, which is often associated with a later achievement gap as preschoolers.

From this new research on repetition, we can see that it's not just the number of words, but also their repetitiveness that may make a difference in language development. We are continuing to see how language is really a gateway skill to many aspects of development. Language is one of the skills that makes us uniquely human, it connects us to each other, to knowledge, and to the world around us. So in talking to our youngest children, we are not only establishing a crucial bond with them, we really are setting the stage for much of their future development.

ResearchBlogging.orgNEWMAN, R., ROWE, M., & BERNSTEIN RATNER, N. (2015). Input and uptake at 7 months predicts toddler vocabulary: the role of child-directed speech and infant processing skills in language development Journal of Child Language, 1-16 DOI: 10.1017/S0305000915000446

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