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Speech Starters

Nothing quite compares with hearing your baby say "mama" or "dada" for the first time. Language development, however, begins long before he utters those precious first words. Here's how you can encourage your little one as he begins yammering away.

• Start early. From the time he's born, talk to your baby often using clear, simple words and phrases. Tell him what you're doing, for example, as you go about your day. By listening to you and others talk to him, he'll discover the importance of speech. He'll soon smile and gurgle back at you, and, when he sees the delight on your face, he'll realize that talk is a two-way process. These early "conversations" teach him the basic rules of communication: turn-taking, verbal pacing, and vocal tone.

• Carry on the conversation. As your baby nears his first birthday, his babbling may start to contain many of the rhythms and characteristics of language. In the months that follow, if you listen closely, you'll hear him raise and drop his voice as if making a statement or asking a question. Encourage him by continuing to talk to him throughout the day. Repeat any recognizable syllables he may say, and then say some basic words that contain that sound.

• Start with simple words.Your role in your baby's language development becomes even more important when he responds to the sounds he hears you make and tries to imitate you. Take advantage of this by introducing him to simple words like baby, cat, dog, hot, cold, and, of course, mama and dada. By his first birthday, he'll probably comprehend more than you suspect. Help increase his understanding by talking to him as much as possible in simple, specific language. Point out familiar toys and objects by name for him. Picture books can reinforce his budding understanding that everything has a name. Choose books with large cloth, board, or vinyl pages he can turn himself. Also look for simple but colorful illustrations of things your baby will recognize.

• Don't rush. Try not to compare your baby to his peers  -- children develop at different rates. Language delays affect as many as one in five children, and sometimes these delays are temporary and resolve on their own. In other cases, speech therapy may be needed. Occasionally, a delay may be a warning sign of a more serious disorder, so be sure to talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns. To learn more, ask your baby's doctor for a copy of the American Academy of Pediatrics' new patient education brochure, "Is Your One-Year-Old Communicating With You?"