One Ride Forward, Two Steps Back

In 100 years we have gone from teaching
Latin and Greek in high school to teaching
Remedial English in college. - Joseph Sobran

One Ride Forward, Two Steps Back

Published: March 1, 2009

Dundee, Scotland

forward-facing strollers having a negative effect on babies’ language
development? British teachers have for some time been observing a
decline in the linguistic abilities of many children, and some have
wondered whether this might be one contributing factor.

There may
be something in this idea. Babies who face ahead cannot see their
parents or caregivers and thus have difficulty interacting with them.
On loud city streets, babies may have trouble even hearing parents
talking to them.

Neuroscience has shown that brains develop
faster between birth and age 3 than during any other period of life,
and that social interaction fosters such neurological development. So,
if babies spend a significant amount of time during their early years
in forward-facing strollers, might it impede their language learning?

National Literacy Trust commissioned my research team to look into this
question. No previous research had been carried out, and strollers, or
“buggies” in British parlance, haven’t always faced forward. In the
19th century, they were designed so that infants faced the person
pushing them. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that collapsible strollers
emerged, with engineering constraints causing them to face forward.

observed 2,700 families with young children walking along main streets
in cities and villages throughout Britain. We found that forward-facing
strollers were by far the most common, but that babies in them were the
least likely to be interacting socially. When traveling with their
babies in forward-facing strollers, caregivers were observed speaking
to infants in only 11 percent of cases, while the figure was 25 percent
for those using toward-facing strollers, and even higher for those
carrying children or walking with them.

Could it be that parents
who buy toward-facing strollers simply talk more? Probably not. In a
follow-up exploratory study, we gave 20 mothers and infants aged 9 to
24 months a chance to try out both stroller types, and recorded their
conversations. Mothers talked to their children twice as much during
the 15-minute toward-facing journey, and they also laughed more. The
babies laughed more, too.

Of course, infants do not spend all
their time in strollers, but anecdotal evidence suggests that babies
can easily spend a couple of hours a day in them. And research tells us
that children’s vocabulary development is governed almost entirely by
the daily conversations parents have with them. When a stroller pusher
can’t easily see the things that attract a baby’s attention, valuable
opportunities for interaction can be missed.

Ours was a
preliminary study, intended to raise questions rather than to provide
answers. It is now clear that future research on the effects of
stroller design would be worthwhile.

Meanwhile, the findings
already encourage us to think again about how babies experience
stroller rides — and other forms of transportation like car seats,
shopping carts and slings. Parents needn’t feel worried, but instead
curious about the elements of the environment that attract their
children’s interest. The core message of our findings is simple: Talk
to your baby whenever you get the chance — and whichever direction your
stroller faces.

For their part, stroller manufacturers should
keep in mind how much their products are likely to shape children’s
development. Let’s give an award to the first one who can produce an
easily collapsible stroller that faces both ways — and is affordable
for all parents.

M. Suzanne Zeedyk is a senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Dundee.

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