When do babies talk? In baby’s first year, the conversation can feel a little, how shall we put it, one-sided? That’s especially true if you’re the only adult in the room for long stretches of time. But it’s important to keep up the chatter and baby talk, because you’re building up your child’s language reserves every time you narrate the day (“Let’s go for a walk,” “Is that a bird up there?” or “Time for lunch!”) or tell a story.
The coos and babbles may be all you get for many months, but you need to keep talking. “A lot of kids are late talkers,” says Nair. (And early talkers don’t necessarily do better in school.) By 18 months, kids should have 10 to 25 words they use consistently. “If there are concerns at any of these times, it would be important to rule out a hearing problem and refer them to a speech therapist,” Nair says.
While it can happen as early as 10 months, by 12 months, most babies will use “mama” and “dada” correctly (she may say “mama” as early as eight months, but she won’t be actually referring to her mother), plus one other word. That third word can be what’s called a “word approximation.” If “ba” always means bottle, that counts, says Nair.
What parents can do Keep talking. “We know babies who are spoken to, read to and sung to have better language skills later on,” says Nair. And, sorry, but e-books and screens of any kind just don’t pass muster. As a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics showed, face-to-face interaction is the gold standard. Make sure your baby is watching your mouth, so she can imitate you. Research suggests young babies can even show signs of learning a second language when it’s taught to them in person from a native speaker, but not when that person is simply on a video. The interactive element is key.
Insist on reading books to your baby, even if it seems like he loves chewing them more than listening. “All the things you do when you read—the intonation of your voice, the different sounds you’re making, the pointing—that’s how babies learn to do those things,” says Nair. A 2014 University of Iowa study found that when mothers respond to baby talk while reading to them, more beneficial pre-language chatter happens than during other kinds of interactions.
A version of this article appeared in our March 2016 issue with the headline, "A really big year," p. 55.