How To Talk To Babies
Excited to hear your baby start talking her first words? Find out how ‘parentese’ helps babies learn language, and some important tips on how to talk to babies!
By Sarika Chuni • 11 min read
When do babies start talking
It is a wonderful experience for an eager parent to hear her baby speak the first legible word. Though this happens when your baby is around 12 months, it takes a whole two years for your baby to start talking coherently and in full sentences.
How to talk to babies
Here are some age-wise tips on how to talk to your baby:
1 to 3 months
- Sing to your infant. Play peek-a-boo and other sound-oriented games with him to help him practice focussing his attention on external sounds.
- Talk to your baby in a sing-song voice.
- Narrate activities such as bath time or mealtime. Tell her what you are doing and what she is looking at.
- Copy the sounds your newborn baby makes. Wait for him to respond. This will teach him conversation skills.
- Show her appreciation and excitement when she starts to make sounds.
- Play with your baby using his toys, read him picture books and name objects (whether in pictures or in your space.
4 to 7 months
- Use the sounds she babbles as cues to build words starting with that sound. For example, if she says “dah” say “daddy” or “dolly”.
- Make different sounds with a rattle, drum or baby piano to interest your baby.
- To help him relate words to objects, point and name the object when he looks at it.
- Similarly, use actions with words. Wave your hands as you say “bye-bye” or pick the cup up to your lips as you say “drink”. You can sing action songs as well.
- To help her understand characteristics of objects, you can give her something to engage her tactile sense and relate it to words. For example: Give her a teddy bear and say something like “Feel how soft the Teddy bear is.”
- Increase your conversations from phrases to sentences and questions. For example: ask him “Do you want the Teddy Bear? This is your Teddy Bear.” Wait and encourage him to respond.
8 to 12 months
- Sing nursery rhymes such as “Twinkle twinkle little star” with actions. Play games like pat-a-cake. Use words like “more” and “again” to encourage attention and communication.
- Talk to your baby about what you are doing. Slowly and clearly. Use exaggerated actions to accompany the words. For example: Mommy is folding clothes.
- Say the word “No” when you want her to stop doing something. Don’t yell or give an elaborate explanation.
- Use positive statements as instructions. For example: Say – “Speak softly”. Don’t say – “Don’t shout.”
- Name everything the baby sees or comes in contact with as much as humanly possible. For example – “dressing table”, “doggy’s food”, “daddy’s hair” etc.
- At this age your baby will copy everything he hears, so be very careful about the kind of language you speak around him, because it will be repeated elsewhere.
12 months and above
- Talk to him about things she uses every day. Give her time to name them. Play games like “I spy with my little eye” or use the words “Show me” to ask her to point to the right object.
- When she names the object correctly or points at the right one, smile or clap your hands to convey your excitement. Say something about the object. For example: You see the Teddy bear. He is so soft!
- Use the words she says as cues to build sentences about them. For example, if she says “car”, you can say “This is your red car.”
- Talk to your child about what he wants to talk about. Give him your undivided attention and all the time to tell you about it.
- Encourage her to talk to friends and family. Ask her to tell them about her favourite toy.
- Engage your child in pretend play. You can talk on the phone, feed the animals in the zoo, or have a tea party with the dolls, for example.
What is parentese?
Some months back, a delightfully amusing video of a dad talking to his 19-month-old son about a popular TV show went viral. The father was talking to his babbling one year old about the final episode of the American TV show, Empire. While his son was unable to form intelligible sentences, the father kept the conversation going with the baby, who was adorable in his responses. The video has been watched more than 58 million times and has been shared more than 1.5 million times on social media.
Besides the fact that the viral clip is extremely cute and funny, there is another reason why you as a parent should consider it noteworthy. It excellently demonstrates the importance of parental interaction in early childhood development.
The dad in the viral video is demonstrating a key parenting skill called parentese, child-directed speech or serve-and-return. Parentese is a way of talking to your newborn baby that in comparison to standard speech, has a higher vocal pitch, almost sing song inflections, a slower pace, exaggerated facial expressions and body gestures, and constant eye-contact with the child. Infants prefer parentese to standard speech.
This video demonstrates parentese for younger children:
What is the serve and return process?
This video by Centre on the Developing child by Harvard University breaks down the serve-and-return process as illustrated by the father-son duo in the viral video:
According to the research paper ‘Predicting children’s speech, language and reading impairment over time’, by C L Taylor, & S R Zubrick, published in International Journal of Speech Language Pathology in 2009 the first three years of a child’s life are the most intensive years for acquiring speech and language skills. If this critical period is ignored or its demands not met sufficiently, language and communication skills are more difficult, if not impossible, to learn later.
Parent-child interaction in the early childhood years impacts not only the child’s language skills, but also almost all other developmental areas. A major new study was released titled ‘A naturalistic home observational approach to children’s language, cognition, and behavior’ by Katrina d'Apice, Rachel Latham and Sophie M,von Stumm, published in Developmental Psychology in 2019. This study revealed that children who are exposed to more adult speech as babies, have significantly better nonverbal abilities such as reasoning, numeracy and shape recognition later in life.
How to speak parentese
Parentese is not mere “baby talk” where you might mumble unintelligible words and syllables out of affection for your baby like “coochiecoochie coo”. Parentese is a scientifically studied method of improving communication with your child in order to enhance her cognitive development.
Why speaking parentese is important for your baby
1. It helps your baby learn a language
When you are drawing out vowel sounds, and variating vocal pitch, you are emphasizing the sounds that make up words. In other words, you are modelling the act of speaking for your baby to imitate.
2. It helps in your baby’s physical and motor development
Recent brain scans by Patricia Kuhl, for her research paper ‘How Babies Learn Language’, published in the Scientific American in 2015, have shown that when you talk with your baby, not only do the listening (auditory) areas of your baby’s brain light up, but also the movement (motor-planning) areas. This means that children are rehearsing your movements, i.e. your facial expressions and body language, much before they actually start talking.
3. Boosts brain function
When you speak to your baby using parentese, you not only help boost her attention levels, but also build connections in her brain that support thinking and reading in the future.
4. Enhances child’s emotional development and bonding with the parent
What stands out in the viral video is the incredible bond that the father shares with his child. When you respond to your infant’s coos and gurgles with “Is that right?”, you are not only modelling the important interaction skill of serve and return, but also showing him that he’s worth your attention. This enhances the child’s self-confidence and builds strong parent-child relationships.
While you use the above tips to enhance your baby’s early speech development, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Respect your child’s intelligence and give him your full attention by maintaining proper and loving eye contact.
- Keep your body language positive. Get down to the child’s level while talking to her. Pat your child or hug them to show your appreciation.
- Keep your tone of voice pleasant and body posture relaxed.
Finally, and most importantly, develop a sense of bonding and understanding with your child by giving her your quality time and attention.
Read also: How to Decode Your Baby's Body Language
About the author:
Written by Sarika Chuni on 24 June 2019; updated on 23 September 2019
The author is a Special Educator (specializing in learning disabilities) and a Management Graduate, with a diverse experience in the corporate and the non-profit sector.
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