Beyond Baby Talk: How To Help Babies And Toddlers Learn Through Speech

Mind the word gap! What you say to your kids matters.

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You can’t help it. You stare into your baby’s eyes and you let out a sentence full of words that you’ve never said before, in a voice that doesn’t sound quite like yours. Welcome to parenthood, the land where babbling isn’t just OK—it’s part of helping our babies develop the speech they’ll eventually need to tell us how much they love us (hey, that’s the plan, right?). How parents talk to their kids, and the “right” way to teach children their mother language has been studied and debated by scientists for decades. Should you be pulling out board books when you’re still just a day or two postpartum and reading to your newborn? Do you really need to buy those fancy flashcards they advertise on all the baby sites? And what’s the deal with baby talk anyway? Slow down. You’re talking too fast! Here’s what the experts have to say about it all!

Baby Talk

What we say to our kids matters. They need to hear “I love you” for their emotional development. They need to hear a variety of words for their speech development. And Mother Nature’s got our back. Parents are hardwired to adjust their speech patterns when babies arrive, especially moms, who tend to switch to what’s called “infant-directed speech” without even thinking about it, says Greg Bryant, PhD, associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Communications at UCLA. Unlike baby talk—which is essentially using nonsense words and diminutives when talking to your baby (think phrases like cutsie wootsie instead of cute)—infant-directed speech describes a change in speech patterns. The voice generally goes up an octave (or two), and we tend to elongate our vowels, enunciating words so they’re sounded out rather than mushed together in the speedy way we tend to speak to other adults. Think about how you try to teach a baby to say mama. Instead of a quick mama, we tend to say maaa-maaa. That’s a classic example of infant-directed speech. “Early on, kids need to learn the sounds of the language they’re going to speak,” Bryant explains. “They more clearly they hear it, the easier it is to learn.” But while it’s an important part of being a parent, Bryant is quick to tell parents not to get stressed out by the headlines that implore them to read to kids from infancy in order to boost their vocabulary and literacy skills, or warnings that kids as young as 18 months can experience a “word gap,” lagging behind their peers with larger vocabularies. “[Reading] helps to make them literate,” he says. But language development is minimal when they’re sleeping through the book and not engaged with the story, he says. It’s OK to hold off until they’re able to at least see the pictures on the pages! Pediatric speech language pathologist Jenny Cardinal of Riley Children’s Health in Indianapolis says much of language development for babies and toddlers happens more organically. “Children learn language through the vocabulary and language modeled to them through their everyday interactions and natural environment activities such as eating snacks and bath time,” she notes. Although every baby is different and will develop at their own pace, parents can generally expect the following in the baby stage:

Birth to About 3 Months

Baby will make cooing or vowel sounds and have cries that mean different things, for example, “Change my diaper” or “I’m hungry.”

4 to 6 Months

Baby will likely be cooing and making speech-like babbling sounds such as ba, pa, and mi.

7 to 12 Months

Babies will babble longer strings of sounds such as mimi, up-up, and baba. It is also around this age that they will imitate different speech sounds and say one to two true words—such as hi, dog, dada, mama, or uh-oh—around their first birthday.

Walking but Not (Necessarily) Talking

Although many babies can say “real” words before they hit age 1, every child will progress at different rates, and the words they use may not make a whole lot of sense to anyone other than their parents and caregivers.   “Children typically have one to two true words by between 12 and 15 months of age,” Cardinal says. “These words may not sound exactly as an adult would say them (e.g., da for dog), but the word is used consistently to mean a specific thing.” Cardinal suggests engaging in play and talking about what is happening using a variety of words, not just labeling with nouns. “Model action words and adjectives, too, to help your child expand their vocabulary,” she says. “When playing, get at eye level with your child so they can see your mouth modeling words for them. Take turns with them so that they understand how conversations work.” Cardinal encourages parents to make investments of their time. “The more practice with talking your child gets, the better they become! It is always helpful to read books together so that they hear a variety of vocabulary words and can use the pictures to help them understand.” In their second year of life (the 12 months between their first and second birthdays), kids tend to start making the m, p, b, h, and w sounds. Typically they pick up a variety of new words, although they’re still not stringing together sentences. Between 2 and 3, Cardinal says children typically use the t, d, n, k, g and f sounds within words. More complex speech sounds such as l, s, r, v, z, j, ch, sh, and th continue to develop through the age of 7.

You’ve got a talker!

Infant-directed speech should continue through about age 4 or 5 Bryant says, but it naturally lessens as kids get older and more adept at language. Think about it—when was the last time you encouraged a school-aged child to say Maaa-maaaa? To keep language development going, reading to and with kids is important, as is challenging them to use the words they see and hear every day. That can simply mean using “big” words in your vocabulary or asking them to describe things they see, fishing for adjectives that stretch their imagination. As Cardinal says, it’s in those rides in the car or dinner table conversations that “they not only hear and learn to produce speech sounds modeled to them, but also learn how to put words together to make phrases and sentences using a variety of words including pronouns, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.” Her final piece of advice? “Talk at a level your child understands and model grammatical phrases and sentences.”

Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.

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