Studies show that babies recognize language as early as the third trimester of pregnancy. Even though it will take six months for babies to connect words with meaning, talking to them as early as possible will help them develop more than just impressive vocabularies.
Phyllis Meers, a pediatric nurse practitioner with Medical Center Pediatrics in Bingham Farms, says parents can help their small child develop language skills in some simple ways.
“Sometimes what to say is instinctive, and sometimes it’s not. A challenge many parents have is having a ‘conversation’ because their child can’t respond,” Meers says.
Here’s some of her insight on the importance of talking to babies.
If you think that your baby isn’t responding, look closer. In the first four months, your baby will respond to your voice with facial expressions and small sounds, such as cooing.
In a handout for her patients, Meers writes, “Some infants get ‘bright eyed’ – that is, they open their eyes wide. Others move around in excitement.” She suggests engaging babies when they are alert and calm, such as during playtime, bath time or while you are changing or feeding them.
This will prove more difficult for some parents than others, and it is important to be patient. Some babies are difficult to calm down enough to engage; others are so calm they sleep through your conversations. The good news for parents in these situations is that there are other ways to communicate with babies.
Try singing or reading to them, which can be soothing and serve as a way to start an early understanding of language.
Could you repeat that?
After the newborn phase, babies are more responsive. They will start mimicking sounds they hear and experimenting with vowels – ooh, aah, eee – and hard consonants – tuh, da, mm. This is the time to start practicing word association.
Meers suggests that parents point out words in different categories and describe them. You can point out parts of the body by singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” or describe the weather, family members, foods or objects around your home.
Physically point to objects when describing them. For example, point to a toy and say, “This is your ball. It is red, round and bouncy. This is your red, round, bouncy ball.”
Repetition is important for retention, Meers emphasizes, and she suggests reading books that use repetitive speech patterns, such as Dr. Seuss and rhyming poetry.
This is also the time to start conversation patterns. Begin asking your baby questions such as “How are you today?” or “Would you like to wear this outfit today?” Wait a few minutes before talking again, so that they understand you are waiting for a response. They may respond, or you may have to answer for them – either way, making sure you pause will teach them how to ask questions when they are older.
Being an engaged parent
“Turn off the technology,” Meers urges. “It’s a great obstacle in parenting. (Parents) pull away and miss the narrow window of communication when their babies are alert,” she adds.
The World Health Organization warns in a recent study that babies under 1 should have no screen time, and that children under 5 should be limited to an hour a day. If you are going to limit your child’s screen time, you should lead by example and do the same.
Limiting your screen time and verbally engaging with babies helps them build self-esteem in addition to growing their vocabularies.
“Parents are babies’ first teachers. Language is the first thing they teach their baby about. Language is one great avenue to build potential,” Meers says. She adds, “More words spoken to a baby is better for development in speech, but it also helps them to think better, develop relationships and social skills with others and be better readers and learners.”