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How Babies Learn to Talk

Early Intervention

Experts are far more concerned about children who don't seem interested in communication, who don't point or imitate adult actions (such as cradling a doll), and who don't make eye contact. These behaviors could signal a developmental disorder or a language delay. Parents should also monitor whether their child is on track with other milestones, such as sitting and walking. An overall delay is more worrisome than a delay in just speech and language.

High risk children, such as those born prematurely or with a disability such as Down syndrome or those who have had meningitis, are more likely to experience hearing, speech, and language problems. As many as half of preterm babies -- those born at less than 34 weeks or less than three and a half pounds -- are at risk of developmental delays, including problems with speech, language, and hearing.

Early intervention for speech and language problems is available, free of cost, through several organizations. Concerned parents can contact these groups directly and should also visit their pediatrician or go directly to an audiologist. "One of the first things to do is to rule out hearing loss," says Paul. Although 42 states and the District of Columbia have universal hearing screenings at birth and 85 percent of newborns are screened, the tests are not foolproof and hearing loss can develop later. The good news is that infants as young as 3 months can now be fitted with hearing aids and begin language learning.

The medical community is debating the role of ear infections in language delay. Dr. Shapiro cites a recent study of 3,000 children that showed that children who had tympanostomy tubes inserted in their ears had no better language development at 4 years than other children with persistent middle-ear infections. "The link between ear infections and speech and language delay has been and continues to be controversial," says Paul. She advises parents to err on the side of caution and have children with frequent infections evaluated.

For the vast majority of kids, however, language learning is a blissfully natural process that should be enjoyed by both parent and child. "All you have to do is talk with your baby and read books with your child. You don't have to wake them up in the middle of the night to talk about death and taxes; they will learn language," reassures Golinkoff.

How true. While house hunting recently, we toured a real clinker, a 1950s rambler with what looked like filing cabinets in the kitchen and plenty of mildew everywhere. "Well, that house was...," I said, at a loss for words. "Execrable!" my 9-year-old son, James, chimed in happily. I have no idea where that came from, any more than I know why he said "duck" before "dog" or "ball." Later, we went out for Chinese food, so maybe his next words will be in Mandarin. At this point, nothing would surprise me.