Baby Talk: How to Encourage Speech Development

From the day your baby is born, you long to hear her form those precious first words. In the meantime, though, there’s plenty you can do to help get your baby talking.

Within the first eight to ten weeks of her life, your infant’s vocal tract will likely have matured enough to allow her to make her first coos. These will be one-syllable squeaks and squeals, and vowel sounds like “eh,” “ah,” and “uh.” By 4 months, you might start hearing consonant sounds like “ba,” “pa,” and “ma,” and by 10 to 12 months, your baby might utter her first words, which will often be “mama” or “dada.”

The great news is that you can help encourage your baby’s speech development. A baby's relationship and interactions with the people closest to her offer the best possible opportunities for language development. 

Here are simple, fun ways you can help get the conversation flowing.

  • Get chatty. Whether you’re narrating a diaper change, making animal sounds, or discussing the state of the union, listening to you talk is the primary way your baby learns language. The key is to speak slowly and melodically, exaggerating the highs and lows of your pitch.

  • Answer back. Tune in to what your baby is telling you with her eyes, facial expressions, and gestures. For example, say things like, “You've had enough milk? No more milk!” and “Yes, that is a scary noise!” This lets your baby know that you care about what she thinks and feels, and it encourages her to continue communicating. Pause after asking questions to indicate that it’s her turn to speak.

  • Read to your baby. Make reading baby books part of your daily routine. Studies show that children who are read to frequently in early childhood have larger vocabularies and better grammar than those who aren't.

  • Strike a chord. Singing nursery rhymes, pop songs, and even your own silly made-up tunes (“It’s pajama time, yeah, yeah!”) will catch your baby’s interest and boost her attention span.

  • Say hola and bonjour. If you’d love for your baby to be bilingual, she’ll have an easier time learning to speak a foreign language if you expose her to it when she’s young (ideally before 9 months) and her brain is still forming connections.

  • Be a narrator. Point out and label things in your environment wherever you go. Babies learn by hearing, mimicking, and repeating, and less so from what they see on TV. So even when it may be tempting to turn on a video, your baby will learn more from you when you narrate how you empty the dishwasher, select foods at the supermarket, or clean up the toy room.

All the cooing, singing, talking, reading, and narrating will pay off when you hear those magical first words. The more you continue to engage your baby, the more you’ll boost her language skills.