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Baby's First Words

Alexandra Grablewski

Babbling babyOverview

When will your baby's cooing turn into his first word? And will it be "Mama"? Well, we can't answer the second question (though our guess is yes!), but generally babies utter their first words at 11 to 14 months, when the tongue and lips gain dexterity and the brain starts to match up objects with names. Of course, every child reaches this milestone at his own pace, but there are things you can do  -- from birth onward  -- to encourage him to talk.


How your baby communicates with you
At birth: From the very start, your baby is learning the power of communication: He cries, you make him feel better. Your response to his noise-making lays the foundation for language.

At 2 months old: Your baby can respond to your cues. So when you say sweet nothings while looking into his eyes, he can gaze back and coo in return. He's making a connection between what he hears and what he does with his mouth. And the high-pitched, singsong way you probably speak (experts call it "motherese") keeps your baby riveted so he can start to decipher sentences and words.

At 6 to 8 months old: Get ready for all the adorable babbling! Your baby makes vowel sounds now, and will add consonants, too. Within months he may imitate the sounds he hears when you speak.


Encouraging baby talk
Give everything a name. At bathtime, for instance, say, "This is the shampoo," as you reach for it. Your baby will build her vocabulary.

Read together. At first she won't understand what you're saying, but you'll stimulate her senses and build a lifelong love of books.

Be silly. Games like "so big" or peekaboo reinforce listening, turn-taking, and imitation  -- prerequisites for conversation.

Sing. Babies naturally love music, and singing is a great way to introduce a range of sounds.

Babble back. When your baby says "goo goo," say something similar in return, like "Hey, boo boo, how are you?" The play on sounds makes language fun. Before you babble on, pause to let her "talk" so she gets a feel for the rhythm of real conversation.


First words

Your child will probably say his first word right around his first birthday (what a nice present for Mom!). Most early words are repeated: You say "spaghetti" and she says "geddy." By 16 months, she'll be able to say a handful of words  -- an average of 50 for girls and 30 for boys. (Boys tend to develop speech about a month or two later.)

This is the age range when most kids' progress varies most widely. To help yours enjoy chattering:

Read between the lines. When you're looking at books together, talk about what's on the page (point out the mouse on each page of Goodnight Moon, for instance).

Provide plenty of narrative at playtime. If he's having fun with his toy farm, for instance, say, "Gus is holding the cow. 'Moo,' says the cow," And so on. Help him put words to objects and verbs to actions.

Don't anticipate every desire. Try not to rush to refill his sippy cup when it's getting low  -- let him tell you first.

Make like a monkey. Or a cow or a kitty. Animal sounds are some of the simplest for little talkers to form because they don't have a lot of consonants.


First sentences

Your toddler will likely start using short sentences now, like "More juice" or "Want ball." Encourage her by:

Prompting. When you're looking at a book together, ask her to describe what's going on in the pictures, which will reinforce her vocabulary. But don't do it to the point of frustration. If your toddler finds quizzing annoying, she may just clam up.

Kicking it up a notch. Repeat her simple sentences in more complicated ways. If she says "Doggy bark," for instance, reply, "Yes, the doggy is barking."


Build your child's vocabulary

By age 2, your child can start to follow increasingly complex sentences and use more pronouns, adjectives, and prepositions. Now's when the two of you can have the real conversations you've been waiting for. Tips for inviting more talk:

Avoid correcting him... Instead, repeat what he just told you in the proper form. If he says, "Daddy goed to work," you can say, "Yes, you're right. Daddy went to work."

...but get him to correct you. Hold up his pants and say, "Let's put on your hat!" Kids love it when you make a silly mistake.

Give him some room. Try not to finish his sentences, and pause after you ask him a question. It may take him a little while to think through what he wants to say.

Get him to tell you stories. Ask him about that trip to the zoo  -- what he saw, what he liked most. Don't expect too much; stories for little kids can be as simple as "I saw a lion."


When to get help

About one in four children is a late talker  -- and fewer than half of those kids will require therapy to get them on track. The best time to get professional help is when your child is around 2 1/2  -- the age when late bloomers usually catch up, says Leslie Rescorla, Ph.D., director of the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College.

Signs that your child may be delayed include:

  • She's still speaking in single syllables or drops final consonants.
  • She doesn't use two-word sentences or ask questions.
  • She melts down frequently because you don't understand her.

Let your instincts guide you, and consult your doctor, who can refer you to a specialist if necessary.


Summary

Your baby's first word is an exciting milestone, and one that you're probably anxiously waiting for. Keep in mind, though, that every child develops at his own rate, and whether your child is an early talker or a late one seldom has an impact on his later communication skills. Talk, sing, read, and play silly games with him. The more you communicate  -- from birth on up  -- the more language he'll learn.


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