The Importance of Talking to Babies
Q: I keep hearing that it's important to talk to my new baby all the time. Why?
A: Talking to your baby gives him a good start on language development. Start by talking with him every time you carry out any routine caring tasks. As you pick him up from the crib, tell him, "I am picking you up, lovey. Then we will get a diaper change and make you all comfy. Then mama will nurse you." As you keep on talking and explaining to your tiny baby, a miracle will occur. Baby will learn from the cadences and tones of your voice that you keep your promises. You are someone he can trust. Soon, he will not fuss to nurse immediately, but will learn to wait a bit until he is dry and clean again. Your talking teaches baby the power of words. This begins the process of intimate attachment and builds a trusting relationship.
Turn-taking: Answer all your baby's gurgles, coos, and smiles with delighted expressions and coos of your own. Tell him, "I love the way you are saying ah, ah, ah. What a nice sound you are making." Later, you can imitate baby's beginning consonants and turn them into duplicated babbles such as "mamama" or "bababa." As baby starts to make these babbling sounds, express your pleasure. "What nice talking! I love to hear you talk. Tell me more!" Be sure to give spaces in between your talking so that baby can talk back with babbles and more vocalizing on a variety of pitches.
Learning new words: Diapering or bathing is a good time to teach body parts. Gently caress the tummy and say "What a nice round tummy!" When you wash his arms or legs, label those body parts too. Similarly, when you dress or undress your baby, explain what you are doing. "First we put in one little arm. Then in goes your other arm." "One shoe for these pretty toes on one little foot. Now the other shoe for your other little foot."
When you serve foods to your baby in the second half of the first year, be sure to tell him the names for each food. "Mmmm. Yummy carrots!" As he takes a mouthful of rice cereal, tell him, "You are eating your cereal. Good for you. Nice warm cereal." When your baby can grasp a biscuit or a banana or a slice of peeled apple, be sure to give him the power to hold his own food and chew on it. Admire him with words. "What a big fellow! You are chewing and chewing on your biscuit. Yum, yum, yum!"
Rhythms, rhymes, and games: Recite simple nursery rhymes while you hold baby on your lap and bounce him gently to the rhythms of the rhymes. Sing nursery songs over and over until he lights up with recognition at these songs that soon become favorites. Don't worry about your voice. Baby will enjoy your songs because you are singing them!
Play simple games, such as saying "Ah . . . boom!" as you reach forward and gently touch foreheads with your five-month-old baby as he sits on your lap facing you (hold him firmly). Also play pat-a-cake, at first by guiding his hands. Later in the first year he will delightedly join in the game by starting to clap hands together as soon as he hears the first words of this well-loved rhyme. Play peek-a-boo (use a soft, light cloth so baby will not be frightened if you hide his face). Play "so big" with your baby and use exaggerated hand motions he can learn to imitate. As you carry out these daily rituals of rhymes and chants and songs, your baby will begin to associate pleasure with words and cadences.
Reading: Of course, share picture books with your baby. Once he can sit fairly well balanced on your lap, leaning with his back against you, you can look at the interesting pictures together. Respond with delight at baby's first excited babbles on seeing a picture of a doggie, a baby swinging, or a daddy rolling a ball to a baby.
Turn-taking talk, sharing rhythms and rhymes, rich responsive talk when your baby babbles, and early, leisurely picture book sharing will all boost a love of language.
Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. She is the author of Secure Relationships: Nurturing Infant-Toddler Attachments in Early Care Settings.