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Small Talk


This was Page's favorite word at 12 months. It meant "waddling, quacking bird," of course, but also "cow," "dog," "cat," "horse," or any creature not a baby (Dada) or a fish (Shhhh). Duck meant "book," too. When you only speak five words, they tend to work overtime.

On the other hand, when Page's older sister, Eleanor, was the same age, she had an impressive 22-word vocabulary, including the phrases "what's that?" "thank you," and "my teddy." But their middle sister, Margaret, didn't utter anything recognizable until exactly on her first birthday. (And it was a doozy: "Art!")

I know all this because I obsessively wrote down the earliest words of all four of my children and continued recording their funny phrases through their preschool years. I did so as a keepsake, but in the process I wound up learning a lot about the fascinating ways babies and toddlers learn to talk.

Indeed, researchers confirm, when it comes to how language develops, there are many surprises in store.

Baby's first words aren't always what we think
Ask most parents what their baby's first word was, and the answer is usually "Dada" or "Mama." Whether these sounds actually mean "Dad" or "Mom," however, is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Babies tend to babble first certain easy-to-make sounds, including p, b, t, d, m, n, and w, says Julie Masterson, Ph.D., a communication sciences and disorders professor at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield and coauthor of Beyond Baby Talk: A Parent's Complete Guide to Language Development. In most languages, in fact, the words for parents feature these early sounds. "When your baby says 'Ma Ma,' you respond to that," she says. "Whether it was meaningful or not, your reaction encourages your baby to keep going and say it more."

In babbling, which begins at 6 to 8 months with vowel sounds, babies practice making different sound combinations and tones. Within months they often start experimenting with the sounds they hear you making when you speak, and the results can seem excitingly like real words. Tamara Jeffries of Philadelphia swears she heard her daughter, Mali, 10 months, say "hat." "I just can't get her to repeat it," she says.

Your role: Go ahead and get excited about your baby's first "Mama," "Dada," and other possible early words, even if you're not sure they mean anything. You'll encourage more language-building babbles. First words can spring forth anytime between 9 months and 18 months, with 12 months about average.

Parenting contributing editor Paula Spencer is working on a book for moms about trusting your gut, to be published by Crown Books next summer.