Babies and toddlers need lots of sleep, playtime, and love. They also need a parent who can carry on a conversation, and that doesn't mean baby talk.
Vocabulary and communication skills should start early in life, with a steady stream of meaningful dialogue.
Moms and dads need to make talking and building an ever-expanding vocabulary an important part of parenting, says Denise Fournier Eng, a speech-language pathologist at Boston Children's Hospital. "The brain looks for and expects language," Eng says. "It needs language to develop higher-level learning, problem-solving, and social skills."
The benefits of chatting with your child are clear: Research shows that by age 4, kids exposed to a high volume of language could have heard up to 45 million words. And the breadth of a child's vocabulary at preschool age predicts his or her reading comprehension and language skill and development at ages 9 and 10.
So how can a parent graduate from baby talk to conversation that can teach?
"Parents do a lot of 'What's that?' 'Say cup.' Or yes or no questions," Eng says. "These don't get you to conversation. You need give-and-take to keep conversation alive."
Skip the monologue, and allow your child time to respond with his own sounds and expressions. At the same time, build on your word base. Get descriptive, rather than repeating the same boring words. "If your child loves flowers, talk about flowers," Eng says. "But then explain one is a gladiolus and another is an amaryllis," for example.
Props can help start a conversation with your child, but avoid the plugged-in variety: TV and technology are poor substitutes for conversation, Eng says. By age 3, 86% to 98% of the words a child uses are words learned from his or her parents.
Without the benefit of a strong word base, children may not be able to make up the difference. "We don't know yet if kids who start school far behind their peers in terms of vocabulary can bridge the gap," Eng says.
Eng shares these tips for talking to your baby.
Use big words. Children don't perceive language as easy or hard -- only meaningful or not meaningful. If they're interested, the word has meaning.
Use your voice to your advantage. Make your conversations lively and engaging, and vary your pitch and noise level when speaking.
Be descriptive. Colors, shapes, and sizes bring your conversation to life.
Use your daily routines. Diaper changes, baths, driving in the car, getting dressed -- all are great times to talk.
Read books. This is different than talking to your child, but the brain takes it all in, and reading complements your conversations.
Take a break. You don't need to talk every waking moment you're with your child. Make conversations meaningful and valuable for you both.
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