Baby study aims to predict language difficulties

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Babies are to be tested for language development before they can talk, in a study that uses eyetracking technology.

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Infants as young as six months will be tested by researchers from the University of East London to try to ascertain whether they will develop future language, social or attention weaknesses.

The study of language development currently relies on assessing speech patterns once children begin to talk, usually from the age of two years.

The three-year 'Take a Look Baby' study, being funded by the Nuffield Foundation, will be conducted in six children's centres in the east London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Newham. It is the first time a study of this kind is being carried out in the community.

Each children's centre team will be trained in infant visual attention, early cognitive development and how eye-tracking works.

A UEL spokesman said, 'The goal of the project is to get early years professionals to actually use it, with our help and supervision, and then to evaluate it by looking at their experience of using it and whether they think it will be useful as a potential screening and intervention tool in the future.'

Lead researcher Professor Derek Moore, of UEL's Institute for Research in Child Development, said, 'An estimated one in ten of the UK's children are affected by language difficulties by the time they start school. In the long term, eye-tracking technology could help to identify some of these weaknesses far earlier than is possible at the moment.

'Eye-tracking allows us to explore in detail exactly how a baby responds to the mouth and eye movements of others, before they are able to talk, and the early identification of differences in the way babies focus their attention may indicate future social, language or attention difficulties.'

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