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Baby talk: Giving your child a head start on language

Infants, of course, aren't able to talk. But their widening eyes, waving arms or little grin lets you know when you've said something they want to hear.

As it turns out, what babies want to hear is pretty simple. It comes naturally to nearly every adult who leans over a crib and grins back at that fresh face. It's all about rhythm, repetition and a few more techniques that are in sync with babies' brains.

As the months go by, your baby will benefit more and more from your smiles and words. Kids learn language through interaction. And you can play an important role in that process.

First response

No matter what language people speak, when they talk to babies they use a common speech pattern. You've likely used it yourself without trying. Scientists call it infant-directed speech. But it's also called baby talk. According to the Linguistic Society of America, this language is pitched higher than adult speech, and the rhythm is slow and exaggerated. The words and sentences are short. And they are often repeated. This encourages the baby to respond.

Building words

Kids play around with sounds for a long time. They may not say a meaningful word until around age 1 year. Meanwhile they're busy sorting out the sounds that make up their language.

At first your child will focus on the way you speak. Then gradually, he or she will become aware of individual syllables, words and sentences.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), you can help your child develop language skills with these steps:

  • Talk about what you are doing. For example, say, "Let's eat some carrots" or "We're going to the store."
  • Practice counting things like fingers, toes or steps.
  • Point to colors and objects and say their names.
  • Ask lots of questions, and respond with smiles and imitation to any attempt to answer. This tells your baby that communication is two-way.
  • Read to your child every day from books with large, colorful pictures. Children like seeing the same book over and over. It helps them become familiar with the words.
  • When reading or talking, allow time for your child to join in.
  • Don't try to correct your child if he or she mispronounces something at this age. If you say the word correctly, your child will eventually do the same.

What to expect

Kids learn at different rates, but there are stages they all go through. The AAP and other experts report that children generally reach the following benchmarks by the time they turn 1 year old:

  • The rhythm of their gibberish starts to sound like questions or statements as they become more interested in the way sounds go together.
  • They respond to simple verbal requests, such as "Come here" or "Don't touch."
  • They try out actions and gestures to communicate, like shaking their head for "no."
  • They become much more interested in language, and may start repeating simple syllables and words such as cat, dog, go, hot, cold, mama and dada.

If your baby seems to lag behind in these milestones, he or she could have a problem such as hearing loss. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns. It's important to get treatment early on so your child has as many tools as possible to learn language.

Reviewed 2/28/2024

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