Your baby's first year will be a flurry of changes -- and not just diapers. From the first smiles, gurgles, and coos to learning to say "mama" or "dada," babies love to communicate with their own form of baby talk. And they hope you'll "baby talk" right back.
All through this first year, you can do a lot to encourage your baby's communication skills. And it's easy. All you need do is smile, talk, sing, and read to your baby.
Why focus on communicating with your baby? Because early speech and language skills are associated with success in developing reading, writing, and interpersonal skills, both later in childhood and later in life.
Why It's Good for Your Baby’s Brain
Infants tend to pay more attention and respond more eagerly to baby talk than to normal adult conversation. The playfully exaggerated and high-pitched tone your voice takes lights up your little one's mind.
Eighty percent of their brain’s physical development happens during their first 3 years. As their brain gets bigger, it also forms the connections it needs to think, learn, and process information. These connections, called synapses, form at a super-fast rate, more than 1 million per second in the first few years.
Speaking to your baby fires up those important synapses in the part of their brain that handles language. The more words they hear, the stronger those mental connections get. That process can strengthen your child’s future language skills and their overall ability to learn.
Infants who get more baby talk know more words by age 2 than their peers.
Baby talk basics. For your little one to get the most benefits:
- Talk with them often. Talkative parents tend to have talkative children.
- Get some alone time with your infant. Baby talk is most beneficial when it's one-on-one between parent and child, with no other adults or children around.
- When your baby tries to talk back to you, don't interrupt or look away. They need to know you care about listening to them.
- Look your child in the eyes. They'll respond better to speech when they are looking right at you.
- Limit how much TV they see and hear. Too much can stunt language growth. Besides, you’re more fun than the voice on the screen, right?
- Throw in some grown-up speak, too. Your baby needs to hear how words sound in everyday conversation.
As your child develops and matures, so should the way you talk to them.
Baby Talk: Smile and Pay Attention
Long before they can speak clearly, babies understand the general meaning of what you're saying. They also absorb emotional tone. Encourage baby's early attempts to communicate with you with loving attention:
- Smile often at your baby, especially when they are cooing, gurgling, or otherwise vocalizing with baby talk.
- Look at your baby as they babble and laugh, rather than looking away, interrupting, or talking with someone else.
- Be patient as you try to decode your infant's baby talk and nonverbal communication, like facial expressions, gurgling, or babbling sounds that could signal either frustration or joy.
- Make time to give your baby lots of loving attention so they can "speak" to you with their baby talk, even when you're busy with other tasks.
Baby Talk: Imitate Your Baby
Right from the start, baby talk should be a two-way street. By imitating your baby, you'll send an important message: what they are feeling and trying to communicate matters to you.
- Have back-and-forth conversations in baby talk to teach your baby the give-and-take of adult conversation.
- Imitate baby's vocalizations -- "ba-ba" or "goo-goo" -- then wait for them to make another sound, and repeat that back.
- Do your best to respond, even when you don't understand what your baby is trying to say.
- Reinforce communication by smiling and mirroring facial expressions.
- Because gestures are a way babies try to communicate, imitate your baby's gestures, as well.
Baby Talk: Talk Often to Your Baby
Babies love to hear you talk -- especially to them, and especially in a warm, happy voice. Babies learn to speak by imitating the sounds they hear around them. So the more you talk to your baby, the faster they will acquire speech and language skills.
- Many adults use a special tone of voice when talking baby talk -- a high-pitched voice with exaggerated expression. This natural baby talk mimics the female voice, which babies the world over associate with feeding and comfort. Keep in mind that talking "baby talk" won't prevent or delay your infant from learning adult speech later.
- Engage your baby's listening skills by talking often to them throughout the day, narrating your activities together. Talk as you're feeding, dressing, carrying, and bathing your baby, so they begin to associate these sounds of language with everyday objects and activities.
- Repeat simple words like "mama" and "bottle" often and clearly so your baby begins to hear familiar words and associate them with their meaning.
Baby Talk: How Babies Learn to Talk
Parents often wonder where their child's speech ability is on the learning curve. The timeline for each child varies greatly: Some babies can say a few words at 12 months, but others don't talk until they're 18 months old -- and then spout short sentences.
- At 1 to 3 months: Babies already love to hear the sound of your voice and may smile, laugh, get quiet, or get excited and wave their arms when you talk or sing to them. Your infant's baby talk usually starts with cooing and gurgling, with some vowel sounds, like "ooh," appearing at around 2 months.
It's not too early to start reading to your infant. Being read to helps stimulate the developing brain. Many babies are soothed by music and begin to recognize simple songs by reacting with smiles, gurgles, and waving arms and legs.
- At 4 to 7 months: Babies now realize that their baby talk has an impact on their parents. They babble more and watch for their parents' reaction. Babies experiment with more sounds and intonations. They begin to raise and lower the pitch of their voices as they babble, just as adults do when asking a question or adding emphasis.
As you introduce your baby to simple, short words like "cup" and "ball," hold up the object to show that it's related to your speech. Read colorful picture books to your baby. Point to the pictures, and name simple objects to reinforce their early speech development and model the importance of language and reading. Practice using short words and then pausing. This will allow your baby to respond with their own baby talk and encourage the give-and-take interaction that's needed for adult conversation.
- At 8 to 12 months: It's a unique joy for parents to hear their baby say "mama" or "dada" for the first time. But the first few times may actually be accidental. Baby talk at this age is still primarily a hit-or-miss playing with sounds like "ga-ga," "da-da," and "ba-ba."
Smile, face your baby, and continue to repeat simple words clearly throughout the day. This will help your baby's growing brain to store the sounds and meanings of words for everyday objects. At this age, babies love one-on-one interaction with you. They also love games and songs with language, like "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Patty-Cake."
Baby Talk: See Your Baby's Doctor If ...
During the first year, your baby should respond to your baby talk by cooing, gurgling, and beginning to babble back. They should respond to "no," to their own name, and to simple requests like "come here."
So while normal language development has wide variation, it's better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your child's growth. Have your baby's speech evaluated at each well-baby checkup, and talk with your baby's doctor if you're concerned about delayed speech or a hearing problem. And remember: Your baby loves to hear your voice, so don't be embarrassed by your own "silly" baby talk.