Episode 226 – Speech and language is a big part of early learning development for young children. In this episode, we chat with Maryam Nabavi, Co-Founder of Babbly, an app to understand babies’ speech and language development by quantifying the different milestones of babbling and connecting parents and educators with speech coaches if necessary. Learn more about how this app is pushing the envelope and empowering the early learning process!
We want to make sure that we empower families to raise effective communicators that are able to advance [so that] when they get to preschool ages, they’re comfortable to tell their teachers about their feelings and emotions and communicate with their peers as best as they can.
Maryam, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hey, Ron, thanks, thanks for having me!
It’s our delight to have you on the Preschool Podcast, Maryam. For those of you who don’t know Maryam, she is co-founder and CEO of a company called Babbly, which is a really cool app that I’ve talked to Maryam about before. Maryam, let’s start off learning a little bit about who you are and what your inspiration was behind Babbly.
I’m one of the co-founders and the CEO. And the inspiration came when in 2013, my son was two years old at the time and I was going through kind of a strange time where I was trying to figure out why he was not meeting his speech and language milestones. About a year before that was when I first realized that he wasn’t saying the first words by the first birthday, which is, as you know, typically when we notice children being more intentional with their speech.
And when I raised the problem with my pediatrician and a couple of other folks, there wasn’t really a sense of urgency. And everyone was kind of like, “He’s too young. Just wait and see.” And it took six months – from 12 months to 18 months – to even push for getting help and resources. And then after that, it took us another six months to get into the City of Toronto’s Speech and Language program.
Unfortunately, as you know, development in children is not tracked. The way we track it hasn’t really changed in decades. We’re following the protocols that are given to parents on paper checklists. And we expect parents to be precise and experts in terms of whether their child is meeting those milestones or not. And of course, there’s a lot of scenarios, such as speech, that are often being overlooked.
So, fast forward: I started working on technology that basically we wanted to know if we can use the baby’s voice as a proxy for brain development. And we worked with clinicians and scientists to codify the different developmental stages into a technology that’s able to recognize the different milestones.
And so how do we find that right balance? Because we’ve heard a lot of other stories on the Preschool Podcast of parents who have felt like [that] something wasn’t quite right with their child in terms of their development and really struggled to get help and support. How do we balance that with overly worrying if there’s something wrong when maybe there’s not? And that timing of that and that processes as a parent, which can be quite stressful?
Yeah, I think it’s a delicate act. But at the same time, when we look at the pace of development and growth of – and by development I mean brain development in the first three years of life. So, 80% of the brain is developed by age three, which is a fascinating case. And I think those critical years are so important that if you think something may not be off, even if it’s a gut feeling, I actually think even six months is too long to wait to speak to a professional.
So, as a parent of a child with special needs who had no idea, like most parents, I had a hunch. But I thought, “This is never going to happen to mine.” I would say it’s better to be on the paranoid side than not.
Having said that, a lot of health care professionals try to not overload the system – we hear this word a lot. So, they try to be cautious around how many of those concerned parents are being referred to a specialist.
But it wasn’t until later that I realized there are so many non-clinical ways that we can help parents by coaching them with play-based interventions and really giving them resources that doesn’t necessarily have to be referred and followed up with a professional that are harmless and are just good for any child. So, at Babbly we try to democratize those resources to as many parents as possible so no one has to fall through the cracks.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it’s interesting, your point about 80% of brain development by the age of three. And in that context, six months, to your point, is actually a really, really long time. So, that’s a good way to think about it. Very cool. So, tell us a little bit more about Babbly. What is it? How does it work? Who uses it?
Yeah, so Babbly is a mobile platform. Our first product is an app that lets any parent track their child’s speech and language development. And if they needed extra support, we offer a parent coaching program.
How it works is once you download the app – which is free for now – you can upload a video of your baby. Most parents take a lot of videos of their little one. You can just upload a one- or two-minute video into the app. And within a few seconds our technology can analyze the voice parts and we’ll tell parents what kind of speech skills the baby has.
Over time, of course, the more data you provide to the app, the more accurate the algorithm will be able to analyze it. But the really cool part is, every time you provide some sort of data and input, the app provides you with a recommendation. And these are all play-based activities that will be personalized to your baby’s skill.
There are a ton of apps out there that provide parents with age-based recommendations and games and activities but we take a lot of pride in customizing it based on a baby’s specific skills and not necessarily generalize age based milestones.
That’s certainly something that will resonate with all the early-childhood educators that are listening, very cool. And out of curiosity, the video part: is that because there’s also the taking into consideration the way the mouth moves or something, or…?
No, I mean, in the near term, we’re not really analyzing the videos, although that’s something that we are looking at. Hopefully in the next 12 months, we would like to also get to a point where we can track things like eye contact and fine motor skills, like pointing.
But one of the benefits of collecting video for parents and for families is, if there is at any point they felt like they would like to speak to a specialist or a coach, that video will really provide a lot of color and context about a child’s development.
So, a baby in given audio file, if it was just audio, we might hear a baby babbling with a very diverse repertoire of consonant vowels. But we have no idea if that baby’s following the sound of adults or whether they’re making meaningful eye contact. Whereas when we look at the video, we know if that baby’s being intentional with their babbling or if it’s less intentional and more just like vocalization.
Right, right, that makes sense. It’s kind of like if you’re taking the recording, you might as well do the video so you have that. And I think a lot of us are using on our phones, whether that’s an iPhone or an Android phone, usually photo or video or kind of like the two options to grab anyways.
Cool, very, very interesting. So, tell us a little bit more about some of the stories, experiences and learnings you’ve had with yourself even or other users of the app, other parents.
So, like I said, in my case, my son wasn’t really talking. He was barely babbling when he was two years old. And I kept hearing stories of, “So-and-so didn’t talk until they were four years old, don’t worry.” And of course, that doesn’t help when you have a hunch.
When I started to work on Babbly and when we began doing interviews, I probably have spoken one-on-one with over 100 families. A lot of them, most of the parents that come to Babbly, is initially out of curiosity. For the first time, they’re able to quantify their baby’s speech and language skills, as opposed to just thinking, “Okay, I think my baby’s just babbling but I have no idea what it means.” Whereas we can tell them what stage of babbling the baby’s at, how much back-and-forth conversation they have with adults and they can look at the progress over time.
One thing that was really important for us was to know, in a world where Babbly doesn’t exist, how accurate are parents in self-reporting those developmental milestones, in terms of speech and language? So, we did a study with over 70 families. And what we found was, what we did was a survey.
So, we showed 5 videos of infants’ vocalizations, different kind of sounds. And we gave parents kind of a quick crash course on what are the different stages of babbling and the different milestones. And we asked them, “When you look at these 5 videos, can you tell us what kind of skills these babies have?” And the accuracy was about 49%.
The important part is, the false positive was about 25%. And what I mean by that is, in 25%of the cases, parents thought, “That child has more advanced skills than they actually had.” And that’s the concerning part because, as parents, we’re biased. Everyone thinks their child is the best, of course. And add that to lack of domain expertize in knowing what those different kinds of vowel combinations sound means, I’m not surprised to hear that so many children remain undiagnosed and untreated until they reach preschool ages.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And what ages typically would this be used with, for what age children?
Ideally, for just the app itself and for analyzing the baby’s voice, any baby that’s between 4 to 18 months for a typical child – usually after that children have 20 or more words and we don’t do word counts. For an atypical child who might have speech and language delay, it can be up to two, two-and-a-half years.
But really, our goal is to get as many children supported as early as possible. That’s really our vision. So, whether it’s through self-guided activities in the app or by referring them to a coach and teaching parents on best practices, we want to make sure that we empower families to raise effective communicators that are able to advance [so that] when they get to preschool ages they’re comfortable to tell their teachers about their feelings and emotions and communicate with their peers as best as they can.
And with a lot of early-childhood educators listening to the Podcast, how do you think that they might be able to use something like Babbly in their roles as educators in a childcare-type setting?
It’s a great question. And right now what we are doing is, we’re doing a few studies with small cohorts of early-childhood educators. And what we’re finding is, they really are hungry for more tools, especially now when there is not a lot of one-on-one, face-to-face opportunities to get information from parents and pass the information to them. They really want to have more quantitative ways to track a child’s development over time.
And the challenge with it is, they often have five, maybe more kids for every educator. And being able to track individual speech and language skills with our technology requires to isolate that child so that’s the background noise is not recorded.
But having said that, being able to do at least once-a-month assessments and being able to figure out if that child is meeting their milestones has been… really it’s kind of like, for the first time, they’re also able to provide some sort of proof that their child is making progress, versus before when they were following the DSM [DSM-5, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] or whatever checklists and guidelines that they were following.
Hmm, interesting, interesting. Especially because we’re constantly dealing with this challenge in early-childhood education of lots of people thinking of it more sort of like as a babysitting service where educators are just looking after the children.
But this really science- and research-based technology can add a real educational component, even at such an early age as with infants, to be able to provide that almost like a service to the parents to say, “When your children come to this program, we’re collecting this information, these observations that’s informing the individualized assessment,” which you said as well, right? It’s specific to what you’re what you’re taking in. So, that’s quite interesting.
Very cool, very cool. So, I’m glad you’re exploring that. So, lots of interesting ways to use the app. Do you find that users are using it more for kind of like you mentioned some of the developmental checklist, which I think are sort of more like a screening tool to identify any potential red flags? Or is it more, I think you mentioned sort of out of curiosity? Or for the developmental recommendations about things you can do? Or is it maybe a combination of both?
It’s really both. What we see with the younger babies that… we have parents that start as early as two months [old], although I’m pretty sure when they upload a video, it’s probably just going to be cooing sounds. But the younger ones, what we see is, those curious parents come to the app to really understand, “What is my baby able to do?”
And they use the activities a lot because, especially now with the pandemic, you spend a lot of time indoors with your baby. And getting that daily inspiration that you know is clinically proven and effective in really promoting your baby’s growth is something that they like. And we see that cohort using the activities a lot more.
And then we have parents who have children that are between 18 to 24 months [old]. And they’re the ones who probably have noticed maybe their baby didn’t say “mama” or “dada” by their first birthday. And they’re either going through the [internet research] phase where they’re trying to get as much information as possible and figure out whether this is something that they need to look further into. Or they might even have a diagnosis and they’re on the wait list.
The other piece that I know in North America and most big cities is problematic is, even if you want to get assessment and treatment, the wait times can be as long as 12 to 18 months. And that’s, in my opinion, criminal because you have a child who’s throwing tantrums, not able to communicate with their parents and the parents don’t really know what to do.
So, we’re hoping for those parents, the parent coaching piece really gives them kind of a quick way to speak to a professional virtually and get some strategies that they can apply at home while they’re waiting to get a diagnosis and further assessment.
Wonderful. Changing topics a little bit: there’s lots of new parents probably listening to this podcast. And there’s lots of challenges with being a new parent, especially a first-time parent. You have obviously become very passionate about supporting parents. What is your advice to some of those parents out there that are struggling with all the things you struggle with, with a little one at home and you’re thinking, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I not doing the right thing?” Any words of wisdom there or from your experience?
I don’t know if I have any advice. I would just share what I learned from going through this experience with my son. What I realized was, ultimately, if you’re having fun with your child… first of all, if a parent is having fun, your baby will get that energy and it affects them and vice versa. I think what was missing in my case was that kind of back-and-forth interaction with my son. And I felt like sometimes when I was playing with him, he wasn’t really paying attention to me and wasn’t really noticing me around him.
So, if you’re already having fun with your child, just don’t worry about the rest. You don’t need the most advanced technology or fancy toys to make sure that your child is going to be okay in life. Literally, their brains are growing and they’re incentivized by the simple things around them. So, just focus on having fun.
If something is getting in the way, whether it’s frequent tantrums or lack of communication or if you just have a hunch, it does not harm to get advice from obviously your doctor, but you don’t need a doctor’s referral to speak to, in this case, a speech and language pathologist. So, many parents, families who have insurance and benefits go down that path and seek advice from a private therapist. So, yeah, as long as you’re having fun, you’re doing the right thing.
Those are good words of advice. Maryam, thank you so much for joining us on the Podcast. If our listeners want to get more information about Babbly or get in touch with you to learn more, where can they go to get more information?
They can go to our website – it’s www.Babbly.co. And they can download the app from the website. There are links to both Android and iOS. And if they wanted to get more support, they can also sign up for the parent coaching program through the website, as well.
Cool, very cool. I downloaded it myself, I’m using it with my little son at home. So, yeah, it’s very cool. Check it out if you’re listening. Whether you’re a parent or within a childcare program it could be a really interesting learning experience for you and for the families you’re working with.
Maryam, again, thank you so much for joining us and for the passion you’re putting into this important project. And certainly in the Preschool Podcast, we’ve come to learn that language is so important – so, so important – to a child’s development at that age. So, we appreciate all you’re doing and for joining us on the Podcast today!