This phenomenon is called babbling. It typically begins at six or seven months, continues well into the second year, and is a crucial step in the development of language, says Robin Gaines, a speech-language pathologist and clinical researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. Babbling comes after cooing — those oohs and aahs young babies make when they’re alert and content. They begin to attach consonants to those vowel sounds (da, ba, ma) and then add rhythmic repetition (ba-ba-ba, da-da-da, ma-ma-ma).
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When babies coo and babble, the physical apparatus that allows for speech (lips, teeth, tongue, hard and soft palate, vocal chords) is maturing in order to be able to handle the whole range of speech sounds. Babies learn their native languages through imitation; long before they figure out words, they become amazingly adept at mimicking patterns of speech. That’s why your baby’s chatter sounds so much like she’s talking; she’s exploring the sounds and shape of the language she’ll eventually speak. Deaf babies who are exposed to sign language babble too — only they do it with their hands.
So how do babies move from babble to real words? Kristina Phillips is pretty sure her nine-month-old daughter, Gemma, has figured out that the word “papa” means her grandfather. “It happened because she was making that sound (pa-pa-pa) and we all said, ‘Yes, that’s papa,’ pointing at my husband’s father.”
Right, says Gaines. “Babies figure out what sounds make words when they get that feedback from their parents. They start to put it together: When I say mama, she smiles and comes to me.” The best way to encourage your babbling baby to speak her first words is to fill her world with language.
Be chatty. It’s important to talk to your baby right from the get-go. Tell her about the salad you’re making or the funny puppies on her sleeper. Talk about what she’s seeing and use descriptive words. If she’s rapt with the Irish setter bounding by, you can say, “Wow, that’s a big dog. Look at his long red hair! He likes to run fast!”
Talk back. When your baby babbles, comment on his story. He will reach for things from an early age, but when he starts to vocalize as he reaches (or points), it means he’s on the cusp of speaking words. If he screeches and points to a toy across the room, let him know he’s made his point. You might say, “You want the yellow truck? Let’s go get the truck!”
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Sing, rhyme and read. Funny songs like “Round and Round the Garden” draw your baby in to listening for the punchline and anticipating the tickle at the end. Reading poems and dancing along help her feel the rhythm of language. Reading should be a big part of every day, says Gaines. Look at pictures and point out objects as your read.
Play with your baby. Babies learn language through interaction. “It’s really important for you to be down there on the floor playing,” says Gaines. “That way, when your baby says da-da-da as he’s waving the ring that goes on the stack, you can say, ‘Yes, Dada puts it on here.’ It’s really all about helping your baby make those connections.”
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Steps to speech
0–6 months • smiles at you • recognizes your voice • makes cooing sounds when alert and content • begins to gurgle and squeal • her cries start to sound different • “looks” for sound around her • responds to different tones in your voice
6–12 months • begins babbling (stringing consonants together) • begins to connect words and meanings • starts to know own name • pays attention to music • begins to say a few words (Mama, Dada)
A 12-month-old baby who isn’t saying words, but seems to understand when others speak and does some babbling and gesturing, may just be taking a little longer to speak. It might be worth having his hearing tested. If he hasn’t started babbling and shows slow development in other areas, talk to your doctor.