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Let's Talk, Baby

How to prompt those first words

Every child’s speech develops at his or her own pace, but there are universal tactics that can encourage the process along. We chatted with Hamptons-based speech therapist Elise Duryea, who’s been in the field for 20 years, to find out exactly what we should be doing as parents to facilitate baby's first words.

At what point should new parents start thinking about language development? Babies are exposed to sounds from the outside world in utero, and can hear words at as early as 24 weeks. They’ll start to recognize their parents’ voices, so reading or talking to a baby bump isn’t as silly as it may seem. And once they're out in the world? The first three years of a child’s life are the most critical when it comes to language development. During this time, they should be hearing between 12,000-15,000 words/day. While it’ll be a one-way conversation for awhile, look for a response through non-verbal cues, like the baby making eye contact or moving around when spoken to. It’s a short window, and 80% of their cognitive skills are developed by the time they’re three. Everything you do now has a real impact. Pressure’s on. How do we know that they’re hearing enough words? Narrate what you’re doing throughout the day. Use a lot of verbs and adjectives to tell them what’s going on. The hi-tech approach to counting those words is to use a word tracker (like a Fitbit for language development—Duryea works with the LENA system). A lot of parents say that they don’t want to undermine the child, but the fact is, babies like “baby talk.” Use a sing-song-y voice, and really describe everything you’re doing. Any favorite toys or books to encourage language? Nothing fancy. Things like a dollhouse, a farm toy, a car with a ramp—you’ll get the most mileage out of those. Talk your way through play time. Then as they get older, you can continue to use these same basic toys in new ways. As for books, those with texture or peek-a-boo features are favorites. Look for ones with lots of adjectives, and lots of repetition. What to expect. Again, it’s different in every baby, but babbling can start as early as four months. Then you should notice some vowel differentiation, and they’ll start making raspberries. If they’re not saying anything at age two, that’s the point where it’s probably a good idea to get things checked out. A good rule of thumb is that the complexity of sentence structure should match up to your toddler’s age. At two, they can generally string two worlds together, by three they can do three. And those words should be intelligible—most of the time (hey, no one’s perfect).