After months of listening to your baby babble, it's a thrilling moment when she finally says her first word—whether it's Dada, Mama, or baba. While this process is a natural part of development, talking to your baby right from birth not only helps her learn to speak earlier but also enables her to master a larger vocabulary. A child's capacity to process words is like any other skill—the more practice she gets hearing words and making connections to their meanings, the more she'll be able to say, says Anne Fernald, Ph.D., director of Stanford University's Center for Infant Studies in Stanford, California.
In fact, experts believe that chatting up your child is one of the most effective ways to give him a head start in life. Landmark research by Betty Hart, Ph.D., and Todd Risley, Ph.D., published in their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, found that babies in talkative families had a higher IQ at age 3 and significantly better test scores at age 9 than those in less talkative ones. Use these tips to get the conversation going to help your baby talk.
Talking to a newborn might seem pointless, but your baby's ears and the part of her brain that responds to sound are well-developed by birth. According to a study published in Pediatrics, the more words preterm babies heard while in the neonatal intensive care unit, the more they responded with sounds of their own, suggesting that conversing with a preemie could encourage speech development. The same strategy can benefit any child: "Talk as much as possible to your infant. She's absorbing a lot more than you realize," says the study's author Melinda Caskey, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Brown University.
Watch for Cues
When you're caught in a nonstop cycle of feeding, changing, and soothing, it's easy to let your small talk revolve around routine matters ("Time for a nap, Sweetie"). Though this is helpful, other subjects will do even more to boost his language skills. "Follow his gaze to see what excites him, and respond to his interests," suggests Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., director of Temple University Infant and Child Laboratory in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
If he's staring at a light fixture or reaching for the strawberry on your plate, give him more information. You might use simple terms to describe what the object does, or its size, color, and flavor. You can also chat about what you're doing ("I'm picking up your toys so we don't trip on them and fall") and chant rhythmic poems such as "pat-a-cake."
Share a Book
In the early months, reading isn't about the plot so much as the shared experience. As you cuddle together, talk about the pictures any way you like—you don't have to stick to the storyline ("Look at the fuzzy bear"). "Touch-and-feel books are great for babies 6 months and under, when the senses are a primary tool, and picture books with no words at all can free you to make up your own tale," says Amanda J. Moreno, Ph.D., associate director of the Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy at the University of Denver. Whether you choose a board book or a Dr. Seuss favorite, reading to your baby can inspire a richer use of vocabulary and provide fun themes you might not have thought of on your own.
Make it a Dialogue
Your baby will quickly tune out a one-sided lecture, so give her a chance to respond. ("Do you see the doggie?" When she replies with, "Ooh goo bah!" say, "Yes, he's eating his dinner.") Likewise, be sure to answer her when she babbles out of the blue. "That teaches her how a conversation works and lets her know you care about what she has to say," says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. How you respond doesn't matter much at this age. You could comment on what your baby is pointing at, say something generic ("Look at that big smile!"), or even say something completely off topic ("How about peas for lunch?").
Turn Off the TV
You might assume that your baby benefits from all language, but flipping on the tube may actually be detrimental. Researchers at the University of Washington, in Seattle, found that babies between 8 and 16 months knew six to eight fewer vocabulary words for every hour per day that they watched DVDs geared to infants. Why? The back-and-forth of social interaction is essential to speech development. A TV character doesn't react to your baby, but when you smile and reply to your little one's babbles, he knows he did something right and is encouraged to do it again. "There are mountains of data to show that the more human conversations a baby has, the further his language develops," says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Parents magazine. Updated in 2018.