Have you heard your baby say "mama" or "dada" yet? If not, those words might be coming soon. Your budding conversationalist is about to make her debut, even if she doesn't yet have a clue what she's saying.
What to expect: "They're starting to do things with their mouths that get parents really excited," says Kenn Apel, Ph.D., coauthor of the book Beyond Baby Talk -- From Speaking to Spelling. At first, the noises happen by accident, when a baby's tongue slips back as he lies on his back and he begins to coo and goo. "By about 5 months they realize, 'Hey, I can do this on purpose,'" Dr. Apel says. "They start to play with sounds beyond 'coo' and 'goo.' They start to make some raspberry sounds and screeches." As their vision improves, so does their interest in interacting with others. "You truly start to see a baby's personality," says Michelle Linsmeier, M.D., a pediatrician with Children's Hospital of Wisconsin Bayshore Pediatrics in the Milwaukee area. "You really start to see blossoming of the social skills, so you walk in a room and you get the bright smile. You make faces at them and they'll start to respond. They start to want to get your attention."
Progression: As the month goes on, your baby might start babbling words like "baba," "mama" and "dada," but she probably doesn't know what those words mean yet, says Thomas M. Seman, M.D., a pediatrician and president of North Shore Pediatrics in the Boston area. But even if her own utterances don't yet have meaning, your baby is paying close attention to everything you say. Recent studies have shown that babies as young as 1 month old lip-read, Seman says. At 4 to 6 months of age, there's much more imitation of sounds as infants listen to the rhythm of your language and try to mimic it.
Another communication cornerstone is developing silently: joint attention. In other words, your baby is now able to focus on the same thing you are. "That's really important because as a child is starting to learn about language, you want her to look at that thing you're talking about," Dr. Apel explains. "Right around 5 or 6 months, if Mom's looking someplace, baby should follow her eyes."
How to help: "Sometimes parents think they're doing a good job reading a book at night," Dr. Seman says. But you want to make sure your baby is immersed in language throughout the day. Narrate your life as you go through your daily activities, he suggests.
"Whatever the baby does, just respond to it," Dr. Apel advises. "If the baby coos, coo back at the baby. If the baby says 'Ooh,' you say 'Ooh' back, and you can expand on it: 'Ooh, Daddy loves you,' or 'Ooh, Daddy's beard.' Respond to whatever baby's looking at as if she is talking about whatever she's looking at. If she says anything that sounds like it could possibly be a word, pretend that it is and expand on it." Such back-and-forth interaction lays the groundwork for your little one's language and social development. "It's getting that idea of turn-taking going," Dr. Apel says.
When to worry: "If they're not showing any babbling at all, any coos or goos, I'd wonder. It never hurts to ask your pediatrician, and you can always consult a speech language specialist," Dr. Apel says. Another sign for concern might be your child never showing interest in looking at your face. "When you hold a child, most children love to look at your face because they like contrast between light and dark," Dr. Apel says.
Don't freak out if: Your baby is a little slow to babble. "There are kids who are a little more go-getters in terms of speech," Dr. Seman notes. But if your child also had a lot of ear infections early on, you might want to get his hearing checked, just in case.
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