Babies this age are busy discovering new ways to interact. "Somewhere around 8 or 9 months, children develop intentional communication," says Julie Masterson, Ph.D., co-author of the book Beyond Baby Talk: From Speaking to Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers. "They are using sounds, gestures, pointing, all kinds of clever strategies, to communicate something. When you think about the baby who cries or screams at 2 or 3 months because she's angry, she's just reacting to internal stimuli, whereas by 8 or 9 months they get it, they can do something and get a response."
What to expect:
"They now recognize that they're no longer completely attached to a parent," says Thomas M. Seman, M.D., a pediatrician and president of North Shore Pediatrics in the Boston area. "They see themselves as a separate person, and ... they start to explore."
As with most developmental milestones, there's a wide range of what's "normal" in language development, Dr. Masterson says. But by 9 months, babies should be babbling, and eventually it changes from just a production of sounds to canonical (reduplicated) babbling. "Children will use clear syllables and adult-like intonation," Dr. Masterson says. "This is so important. Children who fail to develop canonical syllables by 10 months are at high risk for developing later language and literacy problems."
Babies this age can understand the rhythm of language and tell the difference between a parent speaking to communicate and a parent singing or making silly animal sounds, Dr. Seman says. "This is often why kids who are involved in bilingual and multilingual families will do more babbling and less distinct sounds -- because they're hearing so much more," Dr. Seman says. "They're trying to develop an ear for the language."
Your baby will also become more focused on language as time goes on. "You'll see more intentionality, you'll see more of an interest and attention to language," Dr. Masterson says. "Somewhere in that last quarter of the year, if you point to something, they will notice and follow what you're pointing to. Sometimes you see that as early 6 or 7 months."
How to help:
There are two major strategies that can make a difference in early language development, Dr. Masterson says. "First, follow what the child is interested in. So when you're putting away the dishes in the dishwasher, or folding clothes, or playing with the child with a toy, whatever's going on, notice what the child is focused on, and that's what you want to comment on," she suggests. "Second, speak in very short utterances, one or two words. The tendency might be just to talk about what the child is doing, but if it's just running dialog, that's so much. And babies have to parse those streams of words into words. So if the parent can speak short utterances, that saves the child the trouble and the challenge of trying to parse it."
Baby sign language can also be fun for parents and babies. "A lot of children really like that and pick up on that," Dr. Masterson says. "And it gives the child a way to communicate earlier before the speech mechanism is ready. It teaches them the power of communication."
This is often the age when "stranger anxiety" is running strong, and day-care drop-off or date night can suddenly become more difficult. "Sometimes, because of the separation anxiety, they start having difficulty with the parents leaving," Dr. Seman says. "All you have to do is use reassuring words. Even if they don't understand the words, they understand the reassurance that comes with it. Use the same words when you come back: 'See, I told you I'd come back.' That develops trust."
When you should worry:
If your child doesn't engage in two-way conversation, talk to your pediatrician. "You say something; they try to babble back. So if you're not seeing that, you have to worry if they aren't hearing or don't how to interact," Dr. Seman says.
Don't freak out if:
Your baby isn't talking as much as other babies his or her age. Remember that all children are different, Dr. Masterson says. "A child who is inherently really into words, interactions -- that child is probably going to talk earlier than the child who is a risk taker, who is into everything."
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