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10 Things to Know About Talking

Baby with a big face

1. The fact that she's not speaking doesn't mean she's not communicating.

Long before your baby said her first word, she was already chatting you up. Establishing eye contact, imitating your facial expressions, babbling, cooing, gurgling, crying -- these are all forms of dialogue. So don't leave her hanging. Imitate her sounds or respond to her cries to let her know that you hear her and that she matters.

2. To give your baby a really big vocabulary, talk -- constantly.

You may feel silly saying to your child, "What's Daddy doing? He's opening the refrigerator. Oh, look! He took out the milk!" But we promise, the more you talk to your kid, the bigger her vocabulary will be. It also helps when you label things you pass on the street or throw into your cart at the grocery store.

And while it probably won't hurt to use your baby as a sounding board for your latest rant about your boss, it's better to focus on the things that actually interest her. If she's pointing at a cat but can't say the word, help her out by saying, "Kitty. What a soft, pretty kitty." The more you speak and expand on your baby's sounds, the more chance she has of picking up words.

3. Kids are very fast learners.

Get this: between 18 months and 2 years, your baby's vocabulary goes from around 50 words to as many as 250! The experts call it fast mapping. We call it amazing.

4. Kids understand more than they can say.

Ask your 1-year-old to "give Daddy the ball," and he'll be able to do just that, even if he can only say the word "ball." It's at this age that kids are first able to follow simple directions. And around the time babies say their first word, they understand between 3 and 50, says Diane Paul, director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for ASHA in Rockville, Maryland.

5. Don't let language milestones stress you out too much -- they're more guidelines than rules.

As with everything, kids learn language at different rates, so trust your instincts. Karen Slotnick, director of the Speech-Language Learning Center at the Beth Israel Medical Center, in New York City, says not to worry unless your child shows no desire to communicate (not reaching out to you or making eye contact). If you're concerned, don't hesitate to talk to your doctor or a speech pathologist. Here are a few basics to watch for in the first year: In the first three months your baby will interact by cooing, gurgling, and making different cries for different needs. By six months she'll graduate to babbling and turning her head toward a noise. Then, around 12 months, she'll imitate speech sounds and say her first word (we're pulling for "Mama" or "Dada" for you!).

6. Signing may help kids learn language.

At the very least, it can help ease frustration kids can have before they learn to talk. By teaching your child to sign words like "more," you give him tools to ask for the things he needs (and without the tears -- hurray!). If you say the word every time you sign, you're reinforcing the association between the sound and the object.

7. There is a reason we speak "motherese."

Those short sentences, that high-pitched voice: you know you do it! Even older children talk this way to younger kids. But never fear, there's a method to our madness. The higher pitch helps gain baby's attention, and the simple sentences ensure that she'll be better able to understand what you're saying.

9. First words are based on needs and interests.

Just ask Brooke Kimball from Proctor, Vermont, whose sports-obsessed son could say, "Get the ball," at 10 months. "He had the motivation to string the words together to get what he wanted," she says. Other likely topics of conversation include favorite foods, labels (dog), or action words (more, up, no).

10. Reading stimulates language.

When you read to your kid, you're interacting with her and allowing her to hear the rhythm of your voice. Plus, you're exposing her to many words that don't typically come up in everyday life. For instance, when was the last time you said "hippopotamus" in casual conversation? And not only is she exposed to more words, she's introduced to different word orders: Is it a unicorn? It is a unicorn! Studies show that children who are read to have greater language comprehension and a more expressive vocabulary. Getting tired of reading Goodnight Moon for the umpteenth time? You don't necessarily have to read every word of a book for it to be beneficial. As you go through the pages, talk about the pictures, point out the colors and objects, and ask questions about the various scenes.

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.