Why you should be talking to your baby–even if they can’t answer you

Babies don’t make the greatest conversation partners, it’s true. And sometimes, it may seem like everything you say is going right over their head. But good news–although it may feel like you’re talking to yourself, the words you say to your little one matter. Hearing you talk is helping encourage your baby’s language development.

Babies begin learning language at birth

From the moment a baby is born, all kinds of growth and development are set in motion. In fact, a recent study showed that speech and language development begins in the first few hours after birth. The study looked at whether newborn babies can differentiate between speech sounds during the first few hours after birth. Researchers found that newborns could tell the difference between vowels presented forward (or normally) and backward. The babies’ brain response to normally produced vowels was quicker.

The study’s author, Guillaume Thierry, a cognitive neuroscience professor at Bangor University, explained, “Newborns probably benefit directly from being talked to from the very first moments they have left the womb. Clearly, ‘nurture’—the changing of the mind by the environment—starts on day one.”

This study reinforces what we know about how babies learn language–through listening and observation. And it’s never too early to start helping them learn!

Related: Why isn’t my baby talking yet? 7 ways to encourage speech from a speech language pathologist

How to encourage baby to talk and foster language development from an early age

So what can you do with this information?

Speak to your baby while you’re pregnant

Research has shown that babies prefer their mother’s voice after birth, likely because they recognize it from being in the womb. So read them a story and chat them up! It’s one simple way to set your child up for language development success. 

Start talking to your baby as soon as they’re born

Stimulating your baby’s brain with lots of new words and sentences is one of the best things you can do for them. Speech therapists always recommend talking to your child frequently in order to strengthen their communication development. That’s true even if your child is too young to answer you. 

An easy way to do this is to simply narrate what’s happening. Describe how you’re preparing breakfast, the steps it takes to get dressed, or what you see at the park. This helps babies learn how to produce sounds in our language, understand appropriate intonation of speech, learn new words, and learn how to put words together in sentences. 

Related: It’s science: How we talk to babies has a dramatic effect on their future vocabulary

3 more ways to help baby learn to talk

Language learning begins in the womb, takes off soon after birth and keeps growing throughout the toddler years. Try these 3 easy tips to help your child continue to develop and meet their milestones:

1. Speak in an engaging tone of voice

You probably talk in a different way to a baby than you do with an adult, with a different rhythm and perhaps a higher pitch. You might know this as “baby talk,” and speech therapists call it parentese. Parentese involves speaking in an engaging rhythm and tone of voice, while still using correct speech and grammar (so “Let’s put your shoes on!” doesn’t become “Let’s put the shoozies on your wittle tozies!”).

Research shows that talking frequently to your baby, and speaking in parentese, sets children up for successful language development. For example, one study compared babies whose caregivers used parentese and spoke to them often with babies whose caregivers didn’t use this approach. The babies in the first group babbled much more, and at 14 months, they spoke significantly more words than the second group of babies.

2. Teach your baby how to use sign language and gestures

Using gestures or signs can help your little one communicate before they ever say their first word. Here’s an example. Imagine you’re playing with blocks, stacking a tower. You may be holding onto the blocks and handing them to your child. They might reach out their tiny hand or even just look up at you to request the next one.

You can try giving them simple sign language to use instead. As your child is looking toward you or reaching, show them the block and wait a few seconds. If they don’t gesture toward the block, then model a sign like “more,” “want” or “please.” Encourage your child to imitate you, and then give them the reward–in this case, their block!

Related: I’m teaching my babies sign language with these books 

3. Read stories together

You’ve probably heard it already, but we’ll say it again–the benefits of reading to your baby can’t be overstated! Research shows that children who hear more words will eventually learn and use more words. An example: One study showed that when parents read just one book a day to their child, by the time that child starts kindergarten, they’ve heard 1.4 million more words than children who aren’t read to

So build a storytime routine early in life. Your child will benefit from exposure to new words (not to mention cozy bonding time with you). 

Expressable’s “Small Talk” course helps your child say their first words

If you have a child up to 18 months old, don’t miss out on our online course, Small Talk. This course teaches the techniques mentioned above, plus many more. Led by Expressable’s co-founder and Chief Clinical Officer, Leanne Sherred, M.S., CCC-SLP, Small Talk is packed with easy, practical language learning tips you can begin using with your baby from day one. 

small talk

Small talk: How to support your child’s speech language development (0-18 months)

Developed by an expert team of speech-language pathologists, this class will teach you simple, practical language-building strategies to help your newborn to 18-month-old become a clear and confident communicator!


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