Family Times celebrates 20 years!

Baby Talk: Give your infant a head start on language

Baby and Mother

By Melanie Evans

Family Times is 20! To celebrate, we will pick one article from our archive each month – including this one, which appeared in our first Baby Issue in 2003. View our other anniversary content here.

There’s something magical and amazing about babies, especially as they grow up and develop. As adults, we have joy of helping a baby in that maturation process. One area of development on which parents and caregivers can have a significant impact is their acquisition of language skills.

Infants as young as 8 months old have the ability to recognize words they have heard before, according to Smith College researchers Jill and Peter de Villiers. This means if an infant hears a word spoken on its own, she may recognize it later in a sentence.

When a parent holds a ball and says “ball” to the infant, the word may sound familiar to the infant later if the parent says, “Look at the bouncing ball.” The same is true for words heard first in a sentence. If a parent says, “The doggie goes woof-woof,” then the infant may recognize the word later on when the parent says “doggie” and points to the pooch.

By the time an infant is 9 or 10 months old, he is able to respond to changes in voice and facial expressions. By the age of 1 year, infants recognize when they are being talked to and when it is time for them to respond to the person talking to them. Given this information, it is important for parents and caregivers to expose infants to language by talking and reading to them.

Giving children early exposure to words may help their language skills and school performance later in life. Some research has shown that children do better in school if they were talked to and read to frequently as infants. Reading to young children also helps encourage reading skills and gets children interested in books.

Talking with Your Baby: Family as the First School (Syracuse University Press, 1996), co-written by Holly Elisabeth Brophy and SU’s Alice Sterling Honig, outlines activities that help to promote language skills. Many of the interactions they recommend can be done during daily routines. For example, speak to your infant while you are doing household chores, and explain what you are doing: “I am sweeping the floor; I am using the broom to get all the dirt off the floor.”

You can use other domestic duties to help your child learn words. When you fold the laundry, say things to your child about the clothes: “Feel the sweater, it is soft.” By exaggerating the word “soooffft” and having your infant feel the garment, you are helping to associate words with meanings. Talk about the way things feel, the way they look, the color they are or even how they smell.

Also talk to your child during daily caregiving routines, such as changing a diaper, eating or bathing. Again, explain to your child what is happening, “I am changing your diaper. Yes, I am.” It is important to use a warm, caring and loving voice with your child.

Ask your child about what she is doing while playing, and describe these actions. If your child is playing with a stuffed tiger, you may say, “You are playing with your tiger. You are making him walk.”

And, of course, anytime is a good time to read to your child. Books can be read during the day, at bedtime or even in the bathtub; look for books made out of materials that can get wet. Listening to books can be very exciting for babies, particularly if you use a lot of variety in your voice and read expressively.

Reading to your child is also a good opportunity for learning new words. Look at pages with your child and ask him, “Where is the doggie? Can you point to the doggie?” This gets your child involved and helps him master new words.

Use these suggestions to help enhance and build your child’s language skills. Not only will these activities help your child’s language development, they will also aid in building a loving relationship between the two of you.


Here is a look back at some of our other baby issues:

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