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Developing Your Baby's Language Skills

Dorthy P. Dougherty

Shortly after birth, a baby's brain begins to undergo magnificent changes. It doubles in weight and uses twice as much energy as an adult brain, as trillions of pathways develop between cells. These pathways will enable the baby to learn, think— and eventually talk—and what a child sees, hears, touches, and feels during the early years of ‘life strengthens and shapes these brain pathways.

Think of your child s brain as a forest with many trails through the thick brush. Like trails in the forest that are frequently traveled, the pathways in the brain that are strengthened by a lot of stimulation from the outside world are ready for passage and remain active forever. The pathways that are not strengthened become overgrown and lost. Keeping those trails open so your toddler's first words can come tumbling through is an important part of your job as a parent. Luckily, daily life provides hundreds of opportunities to enhance your child s language skills.

Talk, talk, talk
Children listen to learn. The more they hear, the greater their vocabulary and the greater their IQ. One Chicago researcher found that 2-year-old children of talkative mothers said twice as many words as the children of mothers who cared for their babies silently. However, only "live" language, not television, helps children develop language skills. Experts believe this is because children need to hear language in relation to what is happening around them, or it just becomes noise.

Even though your child may be surrounded by conversation from birth, it is important that you talk directly to him long before he can talk back to you. Before a child says her first word, she must hear that word many times and understand its meaning. The natural way for your baby to learn the meanings of words is for him to listen to you talk in relation to the events going on around you, and learn to associate the words you say with the actions, objects or thoughts you describe.

Point things out
Talking should be a part of everything you and your child do together. Talk about what you are seeing, doing, feeling, and touching as you cook dinner, vacuum the carpet, or sort and~fold laundry. Describe your actions as you make the bed, set the table or pour your child a drink. As you dress your child, name his body parts, talk about kinds of clothes and where they go ("Shoes go on your feet. Shirts go over your head.").

Take your child to the supermarket, post office or on other errands around town, and engage his attention with the sound of your voice. In the supermarket produce section, you can find every color, texture and shape to describe to your child. As you fill your cart with food, you can fill your child s mind with hundreds of words and phrases.

Tune into your child
Researchers believe it is important not to push your child, but rather to follow his lead. Keep talking and playing with your child as long as he listens. A baby will smile and tell you with his eye contact that he is engaged in the activity. As your child begins to communicate with you, focus on words and objects that are central to his life or on which he is focusing at the moment. If he is pointing to a squirrel running up a tree, don t start talking about the dog across the street. Talk about the squirrel: ‘it s a squirrel. Look at his bushy tail. He is going up the tree."

Be a good listener
Almost from the day he is born, your baby can express himself with sounds and facial expressions. When he coos or babbles, just be quiet and listen. Stop what you are doing, stand close to your child and bend down to his eye level. Then respond. Repeat what he says or use words to tell him you approve of his talking and understand his message..Being a good listener teaches your child a fundamental part of all communication—taking turns.

Help your child develop listening skills
Children must listen to learn and learn. Hearing the difference between sounds is a link to reading. Give your child experience listening to many different sounds by commenting on the sound around you. "Listen to the clock tick .""Do you hear the airplane?" Talk about the sounds your child makes when she splashes in the tub, claps her hands or stamps her feet.

Be a good model
Experts believe that you should not use or encourage "baby talk." Speak clearly, naturally and most important of all—correctly. Before your child s peaks, he will listen to everything you say and how you say it. When he starts to talk, he will imitate the word  patterns he has been hearing.

Know what to expect from your child
Just as children mature physically at different rates, they develop language at different rates. especially during the second year of life. Both expecting too much and expecting too little can be harmful. It is important to know child is developing and progressing in all areas at an acceptable rate. If you have questions concerns about your child's language development, consult your pediatrician or a speech/pathologist.

Dorothy P Dougherty, MA, CCC-SP is the mother of  two and a speech/language specialist. She is also the author of How to Talk to Your Baby: A Guide to  Maximizing Your Child's Language and Learning Skills (Penguin Putnam , 1999).


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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