How to Talk to Your Baby

You play "peek-a-boo" with your baby. You talk to them while you're changing their diaper. You sing to them as you rock them to sleep. And when they happily coo, babble, and gurgle, you make those sounds right along with them.

It's fun, but it’s also crucial to their development.

Their young brain is soaking up the sounds, tones, and language they'll use to say their first words. You play a big role. Children who have parents who talk to them often tend to form stronger language and conversational skills than kids who don't.

The best way to speak to your little one may be what comes most naturally: that sing-songy way many of us speak to infants -- "How are youuu?!" "You want the baaaall?" It's baby talk, and it can fuel your child's language development.

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, about 700 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.

Continued

At 1 to 3 months

Your infant is communicating with you by cooing, making gurgling sounds and, of course, crying. They are also listening to you -- they may smile, move their arms and legs, or coo when you speak to them a certain way.

  • Talk, sing, coo, babble, and play peek-a-boo with your child.
  • Narrate your activities. During baths, meals, or play, tell them what you're doing and what they are looking at.
  • Read to your baby and talk about the pictures you see.
  • Celebrate, smile, and act excited when they make sounds and smiles.
  • At around 2 months, babies start making vowel sounds ("ah-ah" or "oh-oh"). Mimic these sounds, and mix in some real words, too.
  • When they make a sound, you should make the sound as well, and then wait for them to respond. This will teach them how to have a conversation.

At 4 to 7 months

They’ll start trying to copy sounds they hear. You'll notice them exploring their own sounds and inflections. They may even raise or drop their voice as they try to express their feelings.

  • Use the noises they make to encourage words. If they say "bah," say "bottle" or "book."
  • Expand your conversations. When talking, speak slowly and start stressing certain words. For example, hold a ball and say, "Do you want a ball? This is your ball." Then be silent to encourage them to respond.
  • Introduce your baby to different objects. When they look at something, point it out and tell them what it is.
  • Read to your child every day, especially colorful picture books and magazines. Name the pictures you see and praise your baby when they babble along with you as you read.

At 8 to 12 months

They’ll start to understand certain words (like "no") and say some, too (like "mama" or "dada"). By the time they are a year old, they’ll also understand certain commands, like "Wave bye-bye."

  • Keep talking about what you and your baby are doing, looking at, or pointing to. If they point to a car and say "car," say “Yes, that’s a red car.”
  • Name just about every object your child comes in contact with -- a toy, spoon, milk, etc. Also start pointing out body parts -- point to their arm and say, "arm," and point to yours and say, "Daddy's (or Mommy's) arm."
  • Help your child express in words what they are feeling.
  • Use positive statements to direct their behavior. Instead of saying "Don't stand," say "Time to sit."
  • When you need to stop your child from doing something, say a firm “no.” Don’t yell or give long explanations.
  • Sing songs that have actions, like "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Have fun acting out the song with your child.
  • Babies at this age love to imitate words they hear, so you might want to watch what you say, or you may hear it repeated.

All children learn to communicate at their own pace. Don't worry too much if your baby isn’t talking as quickly as you'd thought they would. If you have real concerns, though, talk with their doctor about it.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 02, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD): “Speech and Language Developmental Milestones.”

The LENA Foundation: The Power of Talk, 2nd Edition: Impact of Adult Talk, Conversational Turns, and TV During the Critical 0-4 Years of Child Development.

Risley, T.R. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.

Urban Child Institute: “Baby’s Brain Begins Now: Conception to Age Three.”

US National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health: “Frontal cerebral blood flow change associated with infant‐directed speech.”

Harvard University’s Center of the Developing Child: “Five Numbers to Remember About Early Childhood Development.”

US National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health: “Frontal cerebral blood flow change associated with infant‐directed speech,” “Are you talking to me? Neural activations in 6-month-old infants in response to being addressed during natural interactions.”

News Release, University of Washington.

KidsHealth: "Communication and Your 1-to 3-Month-Old,” "Communication and Your 4-to 7-Month-Old,” "Communication and Your 8-to 12-Month-Old.”

Moon, C. Acta Pædiatrica, published online 2012.

CDC, “Milestone Moments.”

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