21,000 words a day – that’s a lot of nappies!

Published: November 28, 2014

“Thinking creatively and refusing to give up an idea just because it’s unconventional is important if we are to influence people’s behaviour for good, but is this one step too far?”

Feed baby. Keep baby warm. Change baby’s nappy. Read nappy to baby.

This may sound like the ramblings of someone who hasn’t had quite enough sleep, but the scenario outlined above could become a reality for parents across the UK as new initiatives are considered to try and increase the frequency with which parents speak to babies.

It was revealed last week that the Behavioural Insights Team (otherwise known as the Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’) is working on a proposal to use nappies to dish out parenting advice. According to a blog by the team’s CEO Dr David Halpern, the idea of printing messages on nappies in order to prompt parents to talk to their children more was one of the more “left-field” proposals discussed at a recent meeting of a new World Economic Forum Council focused on behaviour. It seems that the group members, including the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK, will now be working on the proposal.

We at Linstock are big fans of using behavioural insights and nudges to influence decision-making and behaviour, so don’t want to rubbish the ‘nappy plan’ too quickly. We know that babies develop quicker if they are frequently talked to, and since parents will spend a significant proportion of their time changing nappies, why not put that time to good use? It’s often difficult for those with babies to get out of the house to attend classes or workshops, so the idea of putting parenting advice in their hands – literally – makes sense. Salience is key when attempting to influence behaviour, so using a medium that those you’re trying to reach are likely to see at least 10 times a day is good thinking. And with scientists recommending that babies should be exposed to at least 21,000 words a day, frequency is going to be important.

However, I don’t think we’ll see the Pampers redesigning their nappies quite yet. Behavioural insight interventions need to be tested and refined before they can be rolled out on a large scale, to ensure there is a firm evidence base to demonstrate their effectiveness, and I wonder if this is where the nappy plan will fall down.

It’s notoriously difficult to demonstrate cause and effect with nudges, and it will be even harder when those nudges are based around 4am nappy changes. Comprehensive measurement is vital, but how will researchers accurately measure whether or not parents are talking to their children more? How will they prove that this is the result of reading the nappy rather than media coverage or forum blogs? How will they set up control groups given every baby and every family is different?

Thinking creatively and refusing to give up an idea just because it’s unconventional is important if we are to influence people’s behaviour for good, but perhaps this one is a step too far. Encouraging parents to talk to their babies is a great idea, but suggesting they do this when changing nappies may result in little more than babies learning some interesting expletives!

Jo Nussbaum
Senior Consultant

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