When my daughter, Mira, was a newborn, I often thought I was losing my mind. It was Michigan, it was winter, and I was desperate for human contact. So desperate, in fact, that I started talking constantly. These conversations were always one-sided and the topics far from intellectual: "Do you have a stinky diaper? You do!" Then there was the way I said it: the high-pitched baby talk and the way I referred to myself in the third person. What was I doing?
What I was doing, I learned later, was helping Mira build her vocabulary and modeling the skills she'd need to join me in conversation. It's part of why now, at age 3, she's telling me stories about her day in addition to talking in sentences.
Filling your daily life with language is the best way to encourage your child's speech development. Even before he can converse with you, "talk about the people and objects that have captured his attention," says Diane Paul, PhD, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. "When he babbles, respond as if you were having a conversation."
When your baby does start using his first words -- generally by his first birthday -- you might not immediately understand what he's trying to say. Repetition helped Tami Robinson's daughter Ava, now 2. "She would say 'ba-ul', then we would repeat what she said, and she would say it better -- 'bot-tle,'" says Robinson, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Paul recommends elaborating on what your child says to keep the conversation moving. For example, if she says "bottle," you could respond with, "Oh, you want the bottle with the milk in it that's on the counter."
Reading to your baby will also boost language development, even if she can't understand a word. Babies are hearing the rhythm of language, and they love the sound of your voice, so they're getting comfort and attention. In fact, a 2006 study in the journal Child Development showed that babies who are read to have greater language comprehension, more expressive vocabularies, and higher cognition scores by age 2 than those who are not read to.