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You don't need to be in the same room to talk to your baby.

Is Skype good for babies? Recent research points to an encouraging answer to this question.

I grew up in Perth and fled to Sydney for the bright lights of fame and fortune at the first chance I got. I was 19 and I never looked back, even though those lights only ever flickered briefly before the bulbs blew.

Actually, I did look back, often, to my beloved family in the west. Especially after my son came along. The distance felt huge and I knew my parents were desperate to see their little grandson as he grew, so thank heaven for Skype. We talked twice a week to my folks and to my husband’s family, who have the audacity to be spread across Canada.

You can’t help but wonder what little babies are thinking as they blink at the on-screen images of their relatives. Do they recognise that it’s their family? Can they tell the difference between The Wiggles and their own flesh and blood or is it all just moving images on a screen?

Recent research has found that small children do understand when they’re seeing someone in real time. According to a report in US publication The Atlantic, scientists discovered that children can tell the difference between a video call and a TV show, even from infancy. Georgetown University’s Children and Media Researcher, Elisabeth McClure, told The Atlantic that babies can indeed pick up visual indicators and decipher whether what they’re seeing on screen is responding to them.

I can hear my son’s grandmother in Canada cheering from here.

McClure’s studies found that families around America are increasingly using Skype and other forms of video chat on a regular basis to stay in touch with relatives who are separated by distance. This way of communicating is the norm nowadays for small children, who don’t see it as anything exceptional.

And not only does research show that babies understand when they are talking to someone on video chat, they thrive on it. Before they’re able to talk they take their cues from actions, so having the eye contact and being able to see the facial expressions of a loved one is less confusing for them than trying to have a conversation over the phone.

They love the interaction. Image via iStock.
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Research conducted in 2013 also found that children over the age of two are able to learn new words via video chat because this way of communicating provides ‘responsive social interaction’.

Babies and toddlers love communicating with people, even if they’re on the other side of a screen. McClure found in her studies that while screen chatting can be confusing for small kids, they do eventually come to understand how it works. And they love to pretend to ‘feed’ the person on the screen, the same way they love to sit and have a pretend tea party at home with mum or dad.

The best thing to come out of studies into children and video chat is the finding that it is an authentic way for children to learn about affection. McClure says parents encourage children “to give real affection through the screen,” by blowing Grandma a kiss or getting up close for a pretend smooch.

While there are recommendations against overall ‘screen time’ for children, this research indicates that video chat doesn’t count in the same way as television due to its interactive nature.

Kissing the screen might not be the real thing, but for a grandparent who is feeling the pain of distance, it is certainly a close second best. They are able to form stronger relationships with their loved ones so that the bond already exists when the opportunity comes to get together in person.

Do you use Skype with your family?

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