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Your Baby's First Words

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Can You Teach Babies to Talk?

Babies understand what you're saying long before they can clearly speak. Many babies learning to talk use only one or two words at first, even when they understand 25 or more.

You can help your baby learn to talk if you:

  • Watch. Your baby may reach both arms up to say she wants to be picked up, hand you a toy to say she wants to play, or push food off her plate to say she's had enough. Smile, make eye contact, and respond to encourage these early, nonverbal attempts at baby talk.
  • Listen. Pay attention to your baby's cooing and babbling, and coo and babble those same sounds right back to your baby. Babies try to imitate sounds their parents are making and to vary pitch and tone to match the language heard around them. So be patient and give your baby lots of time to "talk" to you.
  • Praise. Smile and applaud even the smallest or most confusing attempts at baby talk. Babies learn the power of speech by the reactions of adults around them.
  • Imitate. Babies love to hear their parents' voices. And when parents talk to them it helps speech develop. The more you talk their "baby talk" with them, using short, simple but correct words, such as "dog" when your baby says "daw," the more babies will keep trying to talk.
  • Elaborate. If your baby points to the table and makes noise, don't just give him more noodles. Instead, point to the noodles and say, "Do you want some more noodles? These noodles taste good with cheese, don't they?"
  • Narrate. Talk about what you're doing as you wash, dress, feed, and change your baby -- "Let's put on these blue socks now" or "I'm cutting up your chicken for you" -- so your baby connects your speech to these objects and experiences.
  • Hang in there. Even when you don't understand what your baby is saying, keep trying. Gently repeat back what you think is being said, and ask if that's right. Keep offering your loving attention so your baby feels rewarded for trying to talk.
  • Let your child lead. During playtime, follow your child's attention and interests to show that communication is a two-way game of talking and listening, leading, and following.
  • Play. Encourage children to play, pretend, and imagine out loud to develop verbal skills as they become toddlers.
  • Read aloud. Lifelong readers come from young children who have plenty of fun, relaxing experiences of being read to out loud.

If You're Concerned About a Speech Delay

Watch for any sign of a major speech delay in your baby, and talk with your doctor if you sense there's a problem. A speech delay can happen for a number of reasons, but the earlier a speech problem in babies is diagnosed, the more time you'll have to correct it and help your child reach his or her full potential before school age. After consulting with your pediatrician, here are things to do to help with delayed speech:

  • Have a hearing test done. As many as three out of 1,000 newborns have hearing loss, which can cause delayed speech development. Be sure to have your infant screened for hearing loss before leaving the hospital right after birth -- or by 1 month old at the latest. Give your baby a full hearing exam by 3 months of age if he or she doesn't pass the initial hearing screening.
  • See a speech-language pathologist. A speech therapist can diagnose and treat specific speech, language, or voice disorders that delay speech. Treatment may include giving parents tips and games to improve speech problems in babies and improve a child's language skills.
  • Consider developmental screening. Up to 17% of children in the U.S. have a developmental or behavioral disability such as autism, intellectual disability (also called mental retardation), or ADHD. Ask your baby's doctor about screening for these developmental problems, which can cause speech delays.

What's the first step for babies learning to talk? Encourage your baby's first words with your frequent cooing, babbling, talking, and singing. Keep responding positively and showing you care. When it comes to baby talk, that's the best building block.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on May 22, 2012
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