When should my baby start talking?
Babies start "talking" shortly after birth. Their cries are a form of communication. Most parents will be able to differentiate their babies' cries within a couple of weeks. One kind of cry means "I'm hungry," another means "Pick me up!" Language development is an ongoing process, and real words start sometime around 9 months of age. This is when babies start to say "Dada" even though they may use it for all men, not just Dad. (Sorry, Moms, but the "d" sound usually comes before the "m" sound.)
Parents always are very proud of their children's development achievements. Most of us can remember when our baby first sat up, rolled over, and took that very first step. But as exciting as these achievements are, most of these kinds of physical milestones are not very predictive of future intelligence.
Language is the one area of development that can indicate future success in school. Language development is also important as it can be the earliest sign of a hearing problem or of autism and related problems. A parent is often the first person to have a concern about delayed language. Most doctors will take these concerns seriously. If language delays are investigated early, often the delay can be resolved with early intervention such as speech therapy or correction of hearing loss.
What should parents look for?
By two to four months of age, babies should coo (vowel sounds like ah or eh). By six months, babies will laugh out loud and jabber (consonant sounds like ba or ga). Finally at nine months, babies start to string together da-da-da or ma-ma-ma. By the first birthday, babies should be using "Dada" and "Mama" to mean Dad and Mom, and they should also be using at least one other word. Vocabulary builds so that by eighteen months, most children can say at least five words. By two years of age, children should be making simple, two-word sentences like "Daddy go" or "doggy bye-bye" and have a vocabulary of at least fifty words.
Besides forming sounds and words, language entails gesturing and understanding. It is important for parents to realize that understanding language (comprehension) normally outstrips the ability to form words at any age. Babies should smile interactively by three months and look alert. By nine months a baby should turn to the sound of someone saying his name. By one year, a baby should be pointing at objects of interest and bringing objects to parents and caregivers to show. By eighteen months the child should understand at least fifty words. By two years a child should understand a two-step command, e.g., "Go get your shoes and bring them here."
If you child is not meeting the milestones listed above, talk to you pediatrician. Most pediatricians will want to have the child's hearing evaluated first, even if it seems normal. Sometimes hearing loss can be subtle. If that is okay, then a formal development assessment is done. Depending on the results, speech therapy or occupational and play therapy may be needed.
What can parents do to help their children development language skills?
Just talking and reading provide the biggest benefits. Name objects when playing with your child. "This is a spoon." "See the lamp?" "This is the washing machine." Describe what you are doing. "Daddy is getting the chicken out of the oven. The oven is hot." Repeat words and phrases: "The oven is hot, hot, very hot. Don't touch." Use a big vocabulary and then define the words, "Mommy is exhausted - tired, tired. Mommy wants to sleep." Pictures books are great for "reading" to young infants. Older infants and children can follow simple stories like Goodnight Moon or guess How Much I Love You? Preschoolers like silly rhyming stories like Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat. And don't feel guilty if you didn't start reading to your baby before she was born - it is never too late to start!
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