Psychologists at the University of York observed 40 mothers and their babies at 10, 12, 16 and 20 months and logged the kind of language mothers used during play. They were especially interested in "mind-related comments," which include inferences about what someone is thinking when a behavior or action happens.
Elizabeth Kirk, a lecturer at the university who is the lead author of the study, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology on Monday, gave this as an example: If an infant has difficulty opening a door on a toy, the parent might comment that the child appears "frustrated."
Then researchers revisited the children when they were 5 or 6 years of age and assessed their socio-cognitive ability. The test involved reading a story and having the children answer comprehension questions that show whether they understood the social concept -- persuasion, joke, misunderstanding, white lies, lies, and so forth -- that was represented.
It turns out that the more a parent made mind-related comments while the child was an infant or toddler, the higher the child's test scores were at age 5 or 6.
"These findings show how a mother's ability to tune-in to her baby's thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathise with the mental lives of other people," Kirk said in a statement. "This has important consequences for the child's social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling."
A separate study in Developmental Neuropsychology, published Monday about children who are 10 months old, shows how social skills of babies at that age are linked to second language learning.
Researchers at the University of Washington were specifically looking at an early social behavior called gaze shifting which involves visually tracking people and objects. They found that babies who engaged in more gaze shifting with a foreign language tutor showed a boost in brain response.
"Our study provides evidence that infants' social skills play a role in cracking the code of the new language," Patrician Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and a co-author, said. Previous studies by researchers at the institute have shown that infant gaze shifting is a building block for social skills in preschool children.