Special Issue "The First 1000 Days of Life: Investigating Early Markers for Promoting Healthy Language Development"

A special issue of International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (ISSN 1660-4601). This special issue belongs to the section "Children's Health".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 1 March 2022.

Special Issue Editors

Dr. Maja Roch
E-Mail Website1 Website2
Guest Editor
Department of Developmental Psychology and Socialization, Università degli Studi di Padova, 35122 Padua, Italy
Interests: language and cognition in populations with atypical development; linguistic processes in bilingualism; development of training for the enhancement of language and narrative skills in preschool years (typical and atypical development); analysis of language skills in children from families with low SES
Prof. Dr. Alessandra Sansavini
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Department of Psychology, Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna, 40127 Bologna, Italy
Interests: typical and atypical development of communication, language, cognitive, motor and academic skills; preterm birth; caregiver–infant interaction; early markers of language delay; infancy; childhood
Special Issues, Collections and Topics in MDPI journals
Prof. Dr. Viola Macchi Cassia
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
Department of Psychology, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca, Bicocca Child&Baby Lab, 20122 Milano, Italy
Interests: interactions between biological constraints and perceptual experience in the development of neurocognitive specialization; infant cognition; early precursors for cognitive development; cultural influence on infant cognitive development; development and plasticity of face processing biases; developmental origins of spatial biases in mental representation; implicit learning skills and serial order processing in infancy

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

The first 1000 days of life are recognized as a time of tremendous potential and enormous vulnerability, as the brain is developing rapidly. The basic skills that children develop during early infancy predict success in the later development of complex, high level abilities such as language, reading and writing, and social skills. Any difficulty or shortcut during this early stage of life have significant cascading effects on the child’s future proficiency in all these abilities.

Language acquisition is one aspect of development for which the first 1000 days are most critical. Language development is a multifactorial process influenced by numerous genetic and environmental factors. Wide interindividual differences exist in the way and rate at which children acquire language, and many neurodevelopmental disorders include impairments in language and communication skills. Therefore, a solid understanding of early markers of atypical language development across the first 2 years of life becomes crucial for early prevention and intervention.

The scope of the current Special Issue is to bring together scholars and experts in the field of typical and atypical linguistic development to provide a clearer picture of the crucial factors predicting language development, and to inform practitioners on how to support language acquisition in the earlier stages of development. Broadly, this Special Issue is seeking original submissions that examine the role of different factors related to typical and atypical linguistic development, which may include, but are not limited to, SES, preterm birth, multilingual contexts, educational poverty, familial risk condition, motor development, cognitive development and linguistic input.

Dr. Maja Roch
Prof. Dr. Alessandra Sansavini
Prof. Dr. Viola Macchi Cassia
Guest Editors

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All papers will be peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a single-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health is an international peer-reviewed open access semimonthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 2500 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.

Keywords

  • first thousand days
  • language development
  • early markers
  • motor development
  • cognitive development
  • SES
  • educational poverty
  • developmental language disorder
  • bilingualism
  • preterm birth
  • genetic risk

Published Papers (6 papers)

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Research

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Article
Reduced Theta Sampling in Infants at Risk for Dyslexia across the Sensitive Period of Native Phoneme Learning
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2022, 19(3), 1180; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19031180 - 21 Jan 2022
Viewed by 167
Abstract
Research on children and adults with developmental dyslexia—a specific difficulty in learning to read and spell—suggests that phonological deficits in dyslexia are linked to basic auditory deficits in temporal sampling. However, it remains undetermined whether such deficits are already present in infancy, especially [...] Read more.
Research on children and adults with developmental dyslexia—a specific difficulty in learning to read and spell—suggests that phonological deficits in dyslexia are linked to basic auditory deficits in temporal sampling. However, it remains undetermined whether such deficits are already present in infancy, especially during the sensitive period when the auditory system specializes in native phoneme perception. Because dyslexia is strongly hereditary, it is possible to examine infants for early predictors of the condition before detectable symptoms emerge. This study examines low-level auditory temporal sampling in infants at risk for dyslexia across the sensitive period of native phoneme learning. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), we found deficient auditory sampling at theta in at-risk infants at both 6 and 12 months, indicating atypical auditory sampling at the syllabic rate in those infants across the sensitive period for native-language phoneme learning. This interpretation is supported by our additional finding that auditory sampling at theta predicted later vocabulary comprehension, nonlinguistic communication and the ability to combine words. Our results indicate a possible early marker of risk for dyslexia. Full article
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Article
How Does Toddlers’ Engagement in Literacy Activities Influence Their Language Abilities?
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2022, 19(1), 526; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19010526 - 04 Jan 2022
Viewed by 161
Abstract
The most intensive period of language development is during the first years of life, during which the brain is developing rapidly. Research has shown that children from disadvantaged households who received high-quality stimulation at a young age grew into adults who earned an [...] Read more.
The most intensive period of language development is during the first years of life, during which the brain is developing rapidly. Research has shown that children from disadvantaged households who received high-quality stimulation at a young age grew into adults who earned an average of 25% more than those who did not receive these interventions. In addition, it has been suggested that children who show a greater interest in literacy-related activities and voluntarily engage in them are likely to become better readers than children with less interest in literacy. These children’s factors, along with their engagement in literacy activities, are important components in children’s early literacy experiences and may affect their early language development. In this study, we examined associations among maternal education, home literacy environment (HLE), children’s interest and engagement in literacy activities, and language development of 44 toddlers aged between 20 and 36 months. Overall, results showed that only children’s engagement in literacy activities was related to vocabulary and morphosyntactic skills, whereas maternal education, HLE, and children’s interests were not. These results suggest that taking advantage of individual children’s interests by planning activities in which children are fully engaged, may be effective strategies for promoting children’s oral language development. Full article
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Article
The Effects of Age, Dosage, and Poverty on Second Language Learning through SparkLingTM in Infant Education Centers in Madrid, Spain
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18(23), 12758; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph182312758 - 03 Dec 2021
Viewed by 452
Abstract
The first 1000 days represent a unique window of opportunity for second language learning. In two recent studies we demonstrated that Spanish infants’ use of second-language (L2) English productive vocabulary and early utterances rapidly increased through the play-based, interactive and highly social SparkLing [...] Read more.
The first 1000 days represent a unique window of opportunity for second language learning. In two recent studies we demonstrated that Spanish infants’ use of second-language (L2) English productive vocabulary and early utterances rapidly increased through the play-based, interactive and highly social SparkLingTM Intervention, which consists of an evidence-based method and curriculum stemming from decades of research on infant language development. Analyzing an expanded and more diverse sample of Spanish infants (n = 414; age 9–33 months) who received the SparkLingTM Intervention, this study examines the variability in L2 production, which was assessed via first-person LENA audio recordings. Infants’ age significantly and positively correlated with L2 production, demonstrating an advantage for older infants in the sample. While overall socioeconomic status (SES) was not related to L2 production, very young infants (under two years) who lived in high poverty homes showed faster increases in English production compared to peers who lived in moderate poverty homes. Infants’ attendance in the program (“dosage”) was also predictive of their L2 production outcomes. Infants across SES have the capacity to begin acquiring two languages in early education classrooms with SparkLingTM through one-hour/day sessions in social environments that engages them through frequent high-quality language input. Full article
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Article
An Integrated Perspective on Spatio-Temporal Attention and Infant Language Acquisition
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18(4), 1592; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18041592 - 08 Feb 2021
Viewed by 1057
Abstract
Efficiency in the early ability to switch attention toward competing visual stimuli (spatial attention) may be linked to future ability to detect rapid acoustic changes in linguistic stimuli (temporal attention). To test this hypothesis, we compared individual performances in the same cohort of [...] Read more.
Efficiency in the early ability to switch attention toward competing visual stimuli (spatial attention) may be linked to future ability to detect rapid acoustic changes in linguistic stimuli (temporal attention). To test this hypothesis, we compared individual performances in the same cohort of Italian-learning infants in two separate tasks: (i) an overlap task, measuring disengagement efficiency for visual stimuli at 4 months (Experiment 1), and (ii) an auditory discrimination task for trochaic syllabic sequences at 7 months (Experiment 2). Our results indicate that an infant’s efficiency in processing competing information in the visual field (i.e., visuospatial attention; Exp. 1) correlates with the subsequent ability to orient temporal attention toward relevant acoustic changes in the speech signal (i.e., temporal attention; Exp. 2). These results point out the involvement of domain-general attentional processes (not specific to language or the sensorial domain) playing a pivotal role in the development of early language skills in infancy. Full article
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Article
Home Language Activities and Expressive Vocabulary of Toddlers from Low-SES Monolingual Families and Bilingual Immigrant Families
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18(1), 296; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18010296 - 03 Jan 2021
Viewed by 1335
Abstract
Children from low-SES (socioeconomic status) and minority language immigrant families are at risk of vocabulary difficulties due to the less varied and complex language in the home environment. Children are less likely to be involved in home language activities (HLA) in interaction with [...] Read more.
Children from low-SES (socioeconomic status) and minority language immigrant families are at risk of vocabulary difficulties due to the less varied and complex language in the home environment. Children are less likely to be involved in home language activities (HLA) in interaction with adults in low-SES than in higher-SES families. However, few studies have investigated the HLA variability among low-SES, minority language bilingual immigrant families. This longitudinal study analyzes the frequency and duration of HLA and their predictive roles for expressive vocabulary acquisition in 70 equivalent low-SES monolingual and bilingual toddlers from minority contexts. HLA and vocabulary were assessed at 24 and 30 months in the majority language (Italian) and in total (majority+minority language) using parent and teacher reports. The frequency and duration of HLA in interaction with adults in total, but not in the majority language, at 24 months were similar for the two groups. These activities uniquely accounted for expressive vocabulary at 30 months, after accounting for total vocabulary at 24 months, in both groups. In conclusion, a minority-majority language context is not an additional risk factor for vocabulary acquisition if HLA is considered in interaction with adults in both languages. HLA are proximal environmental protective factors for vocabulary acquisition. Full article

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Study Protocol
Effects of Early Vocal Contact in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit: Study Protocol for a Multi-Centre, Randomised Clinical Trial
Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2021, 18(8), 3915; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18083915 - 08 Apr 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 1109
Abstract
Preterm infants are at risk for developing altered trajectories of cognitive, social, and linguistic competences compared to a term population. This is mainly due to medical and environmental factors, as they are exposed to an atypical auditory environment and simultaneously, long periods of [...] Read more.
Preterm infants are at risk for developing altered trajectories of cognitive, social, and linguistic competences compared to a term population. This is mainly due to medical and environmental factors, as they are exposed to an atypical auditory environment and simultaneously, long periods of early separation from their parents. The short-term effects of early vocal contact (EVC) on an infant’s early stability have been investigated. However, there is limited evidence of its impact on the infant’s autonomic nervous system maturation, as indexed by heart rate variability, and its long-term impact on infant neurodevelopment. Our multi-centric study aims to investigate the effects of EVC on a preterm infant’s physiology, neurobehaviour, and development. Eighty stable preterm infants, born at 25–32 weeks and 6 days gestational age, without specific abnormalities, will be enrolled and randomised to either an intervention or control group. The intervention group will receive EVC, where mothers will talk and sing to their infants for 10 min three times per week for 2 weeks. Mothers in the control group will be encouraged to spend the same amount of time next to the incubator and observe the infant’s behaviour through a standard cluster of indicators. Infants will be assessed at baseline; the end of the intervention; term equivalent age; and 3, 6, 12, and 24 months corrected age, with a battery of physiological, neurobehavioral, and developmental measures. Early interventions in the neonatal intensive care unit have demonstrated effects on the neurodevelopment of preterm infants, thereby lowering the negative long-term effects of an atypical auditory and interactional environment. Our proposed study will provide new insight into mother–infant early contact as a protective intervention against the sequelae of prematurity during this sensitive period of development. Early intervention, such as EVC, is intuitive and easy to implement in the daily care of preterm infants. However, its long-term effects on infant neurodevelopment and maternal sensitivity and stress are still unclear. Trial Registration: NCT04759573, retrospectively registered, 17 February 2021. Full article
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Planned Papers

The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.

Title: Home Language Activities and Expressive Vocabulary of Toddlers From Low-SES Monolingual families and Bilingual Immigrant Families
Authors: Elena Florit; Chiara Barachetti; Marinella Majorano; Manuela Lavelli
Affiliation: Department of Human Sciences, University of Verona, Via S. Francesco 22, 37129 Verona, Italy

Title: How does toddlers’ engagement in literacy activities influence their language abilities?
Authors: Raffaele Dicataldo; Maja Roch
Affiliation: Department of Development and Socialization Psychology, University of Padova, Italy
Abstract: The most intensive period of language development is during the first years of life, during which the brain is developing rapidly. Research has shown that children from disadvantaged households who received high-quality stimulation at a young age grew into adults who earned an average of 25% more than those who did not receive these interventions. In addition, it has been suggested that children who show a greater interest in literacy related-activities and voluntarily engage in them are likely to become better readers than children with less literacy interest. These children factors, along with their engagement in literacy activities, are important components in children’s early literacy experiences and may affect their early language development. In this study, we examined associations among maternal education, home literacy environment, children’s interest and engagement in literacy activities and language development of 44 toddlers aged between 20 and 36 months. Overall, results showed that only children’s engagement in literacy activities was related to vocabulary and morphosyntactic skills, whereas maternal education, HLE and children interest were not. These results suggest that taking advantage of individual children’s interests so as planning activities in which children are fully engaged, may be effective strategies for promoting children’s oral language development.

Title: Benefits of swimming in infants motor development: a pilot study
Authors: Irene Leo; Chiara Vivenzio; Maja Roch; Raffaele DI Cataldo; Eloisa Valenza
Affiliation: Department of Development and Socialization Psychology, University of Padova, 35131 Padova, Italy
Abstract: According to the “Embodied Cognition” perspective motor development should not be considered distant from cognitive processes and auditory perception; children have to perceive something in their environment that motivates them to act and use their perceptions to refine their movements. Motor development is essential in the first months of life, as the body is the main tool through which the child explores and learn new information from the environment. This study is an exploratory study because of the scientific literature is quite rare about the benefits that motor activity carried out in the aquatic context. Baby swimming is particularly functional because it allows infants making movements that they are not able to perform on solid ground. Moreover, in water the movement becomes slower and this allows to amplify the sensory perception. However, the link between swimming and perceptual information has not always found empirical support. The aim of present study is to investigate whether there is a relationship between swimming and motor and perceptual development. To that end a group of 32 children aged between 6 and 10 months was recruited and divided into two groups, one group regularly carried out aquatic motor activities once a week for 45 minutes and the other one did not. The investigation was divided into two parts: in the first one a motor scale (Peabody Developmental Motor Scale-2) has been administered to the two groups; and, in the second one, fixation times of visual stimuli have been measured during the presentation of an auditory stimulus to both groups to verify if there was a significant statistical difference between the two groups. The results showed a statistically significant difference in favor of the group that performs aquatic motor activities in motor development. We failed to find group differences in perceptual skills. The data of fixation times of visual stimuli measured during the presentation of an auditory stimulus will be discussed and interpreted according to the most recent theoretical models. This study seems to suggest swimming’s effectiveness for motor but not specific perceptual skills.

Title: Visual implicit learning abilities in infants at familial risk for Developmental Language Disorder
Authors: Roberta Bettoni; Chiara Cantiani; Valentina Riva; Massimo Molteni; Viola Macchi Cassia; Hermann Bulf
Affiliation: Department of Psychology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy
Abstract: Infant’s ability to track transitional probabilities (Statistical Learning-SL) and to extract and generalize high-order rules (Rule Learning-RL) from item sequences have been proposed to be pivotal for language learning, with specific associations with different language components (vocabulary or grammar). Nonetheless, research exploring SL and RL abilities as early markers of language proficiency is scarce. This study represents the first attempt to investigate the efficiency of SL and RL skills in infants at low-risk (LR) and at high familial risk (HR) for Developmental Language Disorder. SL and RL abilities were tested in the visual modality to control learning biases that may originate from infants’ expertise in processing linguistic sounds. In the visual SL task, LR (N=21) and HR (N=19) 6-month-old infants were tested for their ability to extract high and low transitional probabilities from sequences of visual shapes and for their ability to discriminate the habituation sequences from new, random sequences. In the visual RL task, LR (N=19) and HR (N=19) 8-month-old infants were tested for their ability to extract high-order, repetition-based rules embedded in shape sequences and to discriminate the familiar rule from a novel one when both are instantiated by a new set of shapes. Results showed that both LR and HR infants learned the statistical structures embedded in the visual sequences, as revealed by post-habituation looking preference for the random sequences. Conversely, only LR, but not HR infants, were able to generalize the high-order rules extracted from the habituation sequences to the novel shapes at test. Results suggest that SL and RL mechanisms may contribute differently to developing language disorders, as SL is preserved in HR infants, while RL is impaired.

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