Your Baby is Listening: Start Talking

This article first appeared in St. Louis Kids magazine, Summer 2009.

Babies don’t talk like we do.  So, many parents don’t speak often to their babies, assuming that they don’t understand what’s being said.   However, talking to babies, early and frequently, has great educational value – and babies understand more than you might think!

Scientists are discovering that language development begins in the womb.  Babies have remarkable language learning abilities and are “universal linguists” during the first months of life when they are learning the nuances of sounds, musical beats and language.  Next they discover the “rules of speech” and grammar. Talking to baby as early as possible is both a fun and important activity for both optimal language as well as emotional development, Communicating to your prenate and newborn verbally and nonverbally builds a sense of emotional well-being for bonding and attachment as well as extends their repertoire for language and communication skills. Thus, conversing with baby builds trust and safety while helping the baby learn about language at an exponential rate.  You are teaching about meaning and conceptual knowledge through your speech as you provide names for people and things.  

When to talk to baby?  Before birth, it is important to tell your baby that he is wanted and to discuss your own feelings.  A French psychoanalyst, Dr.Miriam Szejer, talks to babies in the maternity ward who have had difficult births. She reports healing responses from premature babies and failure-to-thrive babies.  With a newborn, you can talk about what you sense that your baby is feeling.  This helps him learn about his emotional states of being sad, happy, etc.  Including your newborn in conversations with your spouse and friends helps the baby to feel less isolated.  When you take the baby out, introduce them to whomever you are chatting with.  Introductions show basic respect. This is how you would want to be treated.  You can talk to baby when you are feeding, bathing, changing him, going on walks, or doing chores. Share a lot and talk frequently unless it is apparent that your baby needs some quiet and silent time.

How to talk to baby.  When possible, look your baby directly in the eye and speak softly and warmly at a slower pace than you use with adults.  Mothers often speak “motherese,” a rhythmic, animated, high-pitched speech pattern of short sentences.  Linguists have found that motherese is a universal practice that helps babies learn about words and grammar in their own language.  Don’t be embarrassed to use it!  You can use good vocabulary with your baby talk too.  When you are talking to baby, pause and wait for a response just like you would in any normal conversation. For example, if you are asking the baby a question or giving him a choice, say “Would you like me to hold you now? Then wait for a non-verbal cue as his response. He may turn his head away if he is overwhelmed or look right at you if he is engaged.

According to research by Tronick and Cohn, babies are constantly trying to engage our attention and we miss these cues 70% of the time!  Babies want to make full connections with us through touch, voice, and sounds, which are all forms of meaningful dialogue.   Around four month of age, infants begin to make conversational sounds the form of cooing. It is very important that you imitate the sounds back and have fun sharing your interacting worlds.    

This article first appeared in St. Louis Kids magazine, Summer 2009.

Narrating your baby’s and toddler’s experience builds coherent childhood memories. For example it is important to talk about what you see him doing as you follow his lead. You can say “I see that you are holding your rattle up now.  Now I’ve got it and am giving it back to you.”  Singing, reading books, saying rhymes and reading poetry all reinforce language development. Speaking other languages also has long-term benefits.  

Hearing baby’s first words is an exciting milestone for all parents.  Research has shown that, besides the traditional “mama” and “dada”, babies say all kinds of words early that parents may not notice.  Keep yours ears open and keep talking to your baby as the benefits will soon become obvious to you.    

If you want to learn more about babies as “universal linguists” reach the book The Scientist in the Crib, What Early Learning  Tells us About the Mind, by Gopnik, Meltzoff and Kuhl.

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