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Beyond Baby Talk

Talking to infants is critical for language development, but it's a topic that's generally not covered in early pediatric visits. We turned to Hamptons-based speech therapist Elise Duryea for an in-depth look at why conversations (or, monologues) with your infant matter so much.

How much of what we're saying do infants understand during year one? 

Like most of us, babies learn through repetition. While your newborn may not understand what you are saying initially; they hear your voice, the sound and melody of it, and high pitched baby talk called "Parentese" (which is actually crucial for language development). The more they hear the same language repeated, the more quickly they will be able to make connections between the words and their meanings. So, if your baby cries and you say, “Oh, you must be hungry. Let’s get you fed,” and then you do just that—with time, they will learn that by crying, one of their needs will be met. The more frequent those same words are uttered, the more likely it is that your baby can connect the language to its meaning. It is never to soon to have basic conversations, use full sentences, and vocabulary-rich language.

What are the benefits of talking to your baby as they pertain to speech and language development?


Talking to your baby—thousands of words per day—is crucial. Research has shown that children who come from language rich environments are more likely to be successful when they start school than their counterparts who are not exposed to enough language throughout. The first 36 months of life are key for this language exposure. More than that, the language must include the opportunity for a child to take turns in the conversational exchange. This means that a parent isn’t only talking to or at the child, but allowing them to participate. With babies, participation might be in the form of an eye gaze, a smile, or a head turning; as they get older, the child can take a turn by responding with a sound, a word, or even a full sentence.

For parents in need of inspiration, what are some things you suggest talking about with (or, to) your baby?

Talk about the things you are doing to and with them. For example, when changing their diaper, you might talk about their legs or tummy, using adjectives to describe the feel of their clothing or the temperature or smell in the room (#keepingitreal). When feeding your baby, talk about how something tastes, use descriptive sounds or words such as “mmmm” or “That must taste good!” Asking questions like “Is it hot?” or “Do you like that?” also provides an opportunity for your baby to have a conversational exchange with you. And of course, I can’t let the opportunity pass without stressing the importance of reading to your baby. Reading doesn’t mean that you need to have Goodnight Moon memorized—read the newspaper, a magazine article, your Facebook feed. If you are using Parentese, your baby is getting the benefit of hearing language rich text from a well-recognized voice.

What should we be looking for in terms of recognition/comprehension?

Babies learn cause and effect very quickly. With a newborn or very young baby, it is important to be tuned in to subtle cues that will show you that your baby is responding to you or something you said. For example, if a baby hears their mother’s voice, they may turn their head to find her or kick their feet. Sometimes, a baby will respond to a phrase that they hear repeatedly such as, “Do you want your bottle?” As a baby gets older, the signs of comprehension will be more obvious: a smile, a wave, and even intentional vocalizations (or words) may begin to emerge within the first year.

Does it matter who is talking to the baby? Are there benefits to them hearing a variety of voices/types of chatter?

Research has shown that babies can recognize their mother’s voice as early as 20 weeks in utero. Once born, the baby may respond more acutely to that voice that they have grown accustomed to. However, it is the quantity and quality of the language that is more important than the amount of different speakers that a baby hears. Different people bring different types of language to the table, and this is valuable. A grandparent or other extended family member may use language that is more tied to their generation, which allows a baby to hear words that their parents may not use. It’s important to note, though, that a variety of voices does not include technology or TV. In fact, a recent study measured a toddlers’ ability to learn new words in the presence of background noise. It found that noisy distractions such as TV and radio could affect how children learn words at early ages. Moral of the story: The baby can and should be passed around to all your family members, but a screen isn't a substitute (and should never be before at least 2 years of age, according to the AAP).