Editor’s Note: The purpose of this post is to explore, through my personal experience, how certain interactions with your baby may increase their early language skills. This article is not in any way suggesting that having an early talker is a sign of superior parenting or conversely, that non-talking babies (that is, most babies) are a result of bad parenting. Just as some babies are good sleepers (not ours!) and good eaters, some babies are good talkers. Interestingly, while there is a plethora of resources available to teach our babies how to sleep, eat and even learn sign language, there appears to be very little to support parents in their baby’s early language development (0-12 months). This list of ideas is meant to be used by parents and caregivers in all types of settings. My hope is that this post will lead to more talking babies!
Our five-year-old son has been living up to his nickname, Rascal, since before he was born. He kicked me so much during my last few months of pregnancy, I would have sworn I had a raccoon in there. After he was born, he was one of those babies who never wanted to nap, refused swaddling and loved to be strolled over bumpy sidewalks. I can’t tell you his first word or when exactly he started talking, but I remember starting a list of all the words he knew around the age of 13 months. I included funny words like “sozo” (squirrel) and “Bo-du” (Buddha, the sculpture in our neighbor’s garden). Over the next few months, the list quickly grew to more than 100 words.
When he was 20 months old, I thought I should start being more intentional about how we were spending our time. “Maybe I can teach him the alphabet,” I thought. And right there in the line at Starbucks I started with “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” — and he finished the entire alphabet himself. I still don’t know how he learned it.
That same month, I had a conversation with him about the brother or sister he wanted. He was going to go to his favorite store, Barnes and Noble, to buy one for five dollars.
Everywhere we went, people commented on how well he spoke and told me what an early talker he was. Having nothing to compare it to, I took their word for it and felt lucky that this was his gift. I knew we were fortunate to be able to communicate with him and minimize the frustration a lot of families experience when their babies can’t talk.
When Rascal was three-and-a-half, his baby sister finally arrived. We call her Pickelina. I’m not exactly sure why, but as a second child, I expected that she wouldn’t talk as much as her older brother who was showered with attention from birth. She was the infant competing with the three-year-old for the spotlight – no one wins that game. Again, I wasn’t intentionally trying to teach her to speak and can’t tell you her first word or when she said it. But I’ll never forget passing her a yellow duck in her Target shopping cart, saying “ducky” to her – and hearing her parrot it back with all the enthusiasm in the world.
She was ten months old.
By her first birthday, Pickelina had a long list of two-syllable words and a month later she could count to ten like it was her job.
She knew the alphabet before Christmas that year (age 15 months), and over the next few months she learned to speak in complete sentences and ask thoughtful questions. At 18 months, she knew the lyrics to dozens of songs and had memorized the pages in a bunch of her favorite books.
Admittedly this is not the best video, but it’s the earliest one we have. She’s a little excited and distracted by her brother’s antics, but you get the idea!
I say these things not to brag, but more matter-of-factly, as this has been our baby experience. We only know babies who talk.
So last January, when my daughter was fifteen months old, I got to thinking about why our kids might be early talkers. Innate ability and luck surely have something to do with it. And for my daughter, having a talkative older sibling has certainly come into play. But my gut was telling me there had to be more.
As much as we, as parents, have been led to believe that the timing of our baby’s first word is as arbitrary as their first tooth, surely how they spend their days must have something to do with it; just as the way they’re nurtured impacts so many other aspects of their development. The fact that our kids were picking up language so easily made me think that although we didn’t necessarily set out to teach our kids to speak early, we must be doing things to support their early language acquisition.
I thought back to when my son first started picking up words. I watched videos we made of him during that time and listened to what we were doing to support and reinforce his language development. I also started to carefully observe my daughter and the way she absorbs and uses language.
I considered the ways our family communicates that might be unique to our specific life experiences and education. My background is in Elementary Education and I spent years teaching English as a Second Language to (mostly) adults. This means things like enunciating, gesturing, reading facial expressions for understanding, repeating myself and talking aloud for hours on end are second nature to me.
But I had almost zero experience with babies until I gave birth to my son.
My mother, on the other hand, is known in many circles as a “baby whisperer” of sorts because of her ability to make an instant, almost magical, connection with babies and young children. After years of observation, I believe the magic boils down to this: where others might see a newborn baby who doesn’t do anything, or a toddler who can’t really have a conversation, Nana sees them as the tiny humans they are. She speaks to their potential and treats them as a valued part of this great big world they’ve been dropped into.
That might not sound revolutionary, but when you put that belief into action, it changes the way you interact and communicate with that baby from the day they’re born. And it changes the way they see themselves. It reassures them that they are important and drives them to want to be included. And what better way to be included than to learn how to communicate?
From the time Rascal was born, our family has had the opportunity to observe Nana in action and, consciously or not, I know we’ve all been learning from her and in many ways, mimicking her style of interaction. Combine that with a few tricks of our own, and what you get is a simple list of what I believe helped our kids become early talkers and what I hope will help other parents and caregivers to teach their babies to talk:
- Talk to your baby!
If you do nothing else, do this!! Nothing is more important. From the time your baby is born, narrate your day for them and make it conversational – like you’re talking to your little best friend. Have fun with it! Tell your baby about your day. Where you’re going. What you’re doing and why. Point things out and name them. Repeat them. Use constant and consistent repetition. Speak in a high-pitched singsong voice to hold their attention and get them excited to join the conversation. If this feels awkward and unnatural to you, remind yourself that your baby is a tiny helpless creature (like an adorable alien) who just landed on earth and knows nothing about being human. They need you to teach them! When mom or one of the baby’s primary caregivers develops a level of comfort in this role, they set an example for other family members (like siblings) who will likely follow suit.
- Include your baby in all family activities.
Since your baby is unable to participate in daily activities, they often get parked off to the side of the action — but they shouldn’t! While overstimulation might be a concern around nap time, invite your baby to spend the rest of the day observing and participating in as much of real life as possible. Let them see how you prepare food, make the bed, brush your teeth, dry your hair, etc. And tell them about it!
We’ve found that having a counter seat is ideal for the kitchen. In this video, you can see the counter seat in action as we teach Pickelina a new word.
Seated in the heart of the action, my husband has shown our babies how to do things like make coffee, fry eggs and mix smoothies, while I let them watch me do all meal prep and cooking. I always narrate what I’m doing and encourage them to touch and taste.
Even outside the house, at places like the playground, park your baby where they can watch the big kids on the swings and slides. Tell them what the big kids are doing!
- Teach your baby the back-and-forth rhythm of conversation.
When talking to your baby, keep in mind that you don’t want them to simply be listening passively, but learning how conversation works. Ask questions and pause for the baby to respond – even if it’s just with a gurgle or coo. Talk to them in small sound bites and let them try to repeat you or talk back. You’ll be surprised at how happy they are to be asked for an opinion and how quickly and naturally they pick up this skill.
Example dialogue at wake-up time:
How’s my baby this morning?
Oh, you look happy. Did you get a good sleep?
Do you want to see your teddy bear?
Coo. [show bear]
Teddy is soft and cozy, isn’t he?
Do you want mommy to pick you up now?
Blowing raspberries, which most babies will usually start to do between 6 and 8 months of age, is another fun way to initiate this early conversation and an important skill for your baby to develop. Speech and Language Pathologist Tara Kehoe states, “Razzies really teach babies how to regulate their voice, how to turn it on and off, change the volume and the pitch. It shows them how to navigate the diaphragm, mouth, lips and tongue.”
Encourage the raspberries by paying attention to when your baby starts doing them and do them back! Laugh, smile and talk to them like you’re having bubble blowing conversation. Remembering how my babies did this in the grocery store still makes me smile.
- Create rituals for your baby around the house and neighborhood.
Anyone who’s ever read a toddler a story knows how much kids love repetition. And while they can ask for a story again and again at age one or two, I don’t believe this is where their love of repetition begins. Just as you might create a ritual around nap or bath time that revolves around the same toys and activities, creating other rituals around your house and neighborhood is fun for your baby and introduces them to the language connected to these places and experiences.
Here are a few ideas:
- Show your baby how to make toast, set the table, water the flowers, etc. Explain what you’re doing, step-by-step.
- Show your baby the photos and pictures on your walls and describe them.
- Walk or stroll through your neighborhood and point out the garden, the flowers, the trees, the cars, the dogs, the garden gnomes – all of it! Repeat the language. For me, it’s always more fun to say hello to things than to just name them. The same way we say goodnight to everything in Good Night, Moon, we say hello to whatever comes across our path on our stroll. “Good morning, flowers!” “Hello, puppy!” “Hello, pool!”.
Instill curiosity by asking questions. Of course, your baby won’t be able to answer them, but they’ll learn what questions sound like and that a response is expected. Ask your baby lots of questions about everything around them. Ask open-ended questions — pause, and then answer them.
- “Who do you see over there? Is that Daddy?” Pause. “Yes! Daddy is cutting the grass!”
- “What’s up in the sky? Is that an airplane?” Pause. “Yes! It’s flying in the sky!”
- Turn familiar tunes into songs for everyday events like baths & diaper changes.
A quick story: My husband and I attended a baby shower before Rascal was born and an expectant couple we met told us about their “inputs/outputs” plan. Since the Mom was planning to breastfeed the baby, she was considered responsible for “inputs” (what goes into the baby) and dad was going to be in charge of “outputs” (diapers). To my shock and amazement, my husband, thrilled to have a piece of parenthood to call his own, thought this was an idea we should adopt as well. He embraced his job with open arms and even came up with a song he sang during diaper changes. Of course, Rascal loved it and now we sing it for Pickelina, too. We call it “Clean Diapies” (sung it to the tune of Green Acres):
“Clean diapies are the ones for me. Clean diapies are for my baby. Clean diapies for our special guy. Clean diapies keep us nice and dry”
And for her:
“Clean diapies are the ones for me. Clean diapies are for my baby. Clean diapies for our special girl. Clean diapies are the best in the world. Yay!”
Not only does this add an element of playfulness to an otherwise mundane and occasionally disgusting job, but it makes it fun for the baby, teaches her a song and helps avoid the tantrums that often accompany toddler diaper changes.
Here’s another easy one to the tune of “This the Way the Ladies Ride”: “This is the way we clean the baby, clean the baby, clean the baby. This is the way we clean the baby. Early in the morning!” Insert wash our hands, eat our cheese, brush our teeth, make our bed, clean the baby, brush our hair — you name it.
My daughter’s favorite thing to do these days is to make up her own lyrics to familiar tunes. She narrates her day to us the way we’ve always narrated ours to her, but she does it in songs.
- Let your baby enjoy watching videos of themselves
From the moment our kids entered the world, hours and hours of their lives have been recorded on video. Initially, I was just doing this for myself and to share with our family, but quickly learned that there is another valuable use for them: entertainment and education for the baby! I learned this the first time I let Rascal watch a video of himself throwing his ball and running through a muddy puddle on the basketball court near our house.
He was running through the puddle, Daddy was trying to block him, and I was narrating a bit of the action. He laughed hysterically as he watched the video and his entire face lit up as he screamed “Pubble! Pubble!”. All he wanted to do was watch that video over and over again — and, incidentally, practice that word. Not only was he being entertained, but he was listening to the dialogue over and over again, and listening to himself speak.
Naturally, my daughter is also obsessed with her own videos now, and I’m fascinated with the expressions on her face as she watches herself talking. As she listens, she repeats what she hears. We spent a lot of time with my parents (her Nana & Papa) this summer and one of her favorite things was snuggling on Papa’s lap and watching videos of things like riding the merry-go-round, goofing around with her brother, and our family singing Happy Birthday to her. What a treasure these videos have become — reinforcing her language skills through her personal experiences.
- Listen to music and sing!
Our house is never quiet. Our car is never quiet. In fact, everywhere we go, we listen to songs because my kids always ask for them. Create a Spotify playlist like this one that you can listen to at home and in the car. Just as our brains can hold melodies and lyrics in ways we can’t often explain, so do our baby’s brains. Once you start doing this on a regular basis, you’ll notice that your children will quickly begin to learn the lyrics, and often know the order of the songs.
And if you really want to be intentional about it, let your baby watch you sing along to familiar songs. I’ve noticed the way my daughter stares at my lips as they move and am certain that this has also attributed to her early vocabulary development.
- Read books and help your baby make connections with them.
Brain science tells us that everything stored in our brain is connected to something else. That if we want to retain new information, we need to connect it to something our brain is already familiar with. An example of how this works in real life is when we’re trying to teach kids the letters of the alphabet and we help them make connections between the sounds of the letters and things they’re familiar with, like A and apple or B and banana. If they connect the sounds to familiar words like apple and banana, they are far more likely to remember them than if we made the connection to unfamiliar, abstract words like arithmetic and between.
If your baby’s brain has nothing to connect new information to, there is no way for it to be stored in their long-term memory. With this knowledge in mind, it makes sense that the earlier we introduce our babies to new words in context, and reinforce the meaning of those words by helping them to make connections, the sooner they will remember the words and begin to use them.
(For a deeper understanding of this fascinating topic and a great explanatory video, read How Making Connections Helps Your Child’s Memory.)
When I taught elementary school, one of the focuses of our literacy program was helping students to make three types of connections to their reading material: text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world. Of everything that was included in the curriculum that year, this stood out to me as being one of the most valuable life-long learning skills. Even as adults, when we connect to what we read, we see value in it and it helps us to make sense of the worlds within us and around us. And again, we’re also far more likely to remember it.
Here are some examples of how we would help a baby to connect to a book about the color blue:
Text-to-Self: talk about and point at things connected to themselves that are blue – jeans, blocks, toys, eyes etc.
Text-to-Text: Talk about or pick up another book with something blue in it – like Little Blue Truck (incidentally, an excellent story!).
Text-to-World: Talk about something in the world that is blue – like the sky, your neighbor’s car or the house around the corner.
Books give our babies’ brains access to information about the world in bite-size pieces designed for their growing brains to digest. The information is often presented in its simplest form with lots of pictures and single words or short sentences; much like when we, as adults, are learning a second language. When we help our babies to connect to a story by sharing an example of how the words are used in their own life, it helps move those words into the long-term storage in their brain. And once they’re stored in long-term memory, they’re ready for even more information to connect to as your baby’s understanding deepens.
When reading to our babies, we focus less on reading every word on the page and more on the content of the story. We always ask questions when we’re reading, and point out ways the story is connected to our other experiences.
Here are some more examples of questions we might ask to help make connections as new words are introduced in a story we’re reading:
- A character named Bob. “Do we know someone named Bob?”
- A red barn. “Do we have something red?” “Where did we see a barn?”
- A dog. “What does a dog say?” “Who else has a dog?”
- A baby at the beach. “Have you been to the beach?”
- A seashell. “Do you have a seashell?” (pick it up and show it to the baby) “Where did we get the seashell?”
- Play music videos.
Contrary to popular opinion, I believe the benefits of what we watch on tv and our iPad far outweigh any negative implications I’ve observed in either of my children. I’m not suggesting you drop your baby in front of a screen all day, but in moderation, a carefully curated list of shows and YouTube videos can introduce your baby to a wealth of new words and experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible, especially in today’s Covid-19 world. You can even explain the action as it’s happening and ask your baby questions about what they’re seeing. “What’s the panda doing? What color is the boat?” Watching the same videos repeatedly, your baby will learn to sing along and narrate the actions.
My daughter’s language acquisition grew by leaps and bounds during months 16-20 and I noticed that she was taking sentences directly from what she was watching and using them in real life. She also started asking for songs not only by their name, but their artist and version! It’s been fascinating to watch her connect what she sees on the screen to what she sees in real life.
Here’s a family favorite:
10. Create multisensory experiences for your baby.
If our eyes, ears and hands act as receptors for our brains, then what better way to engage our babies in speaking than to put something in their hands that they can see and touch, and then tell them what it is!?
Looking back, it now makes perfect sense that the word “ducky” created such excitement for Pickelina at Target that day. She suddenly found herself engaged in a multisensory experience – the duck was in her hands (touch), she was looking at it (see) and I told her what it was (hear) – that inspired her to share her words and enthusiasm with us.
I could have also taken it a step further by telling her the sound a duck makes and showing her an example of ducks in context, like a book, video or actual ducks on a pond, to reinforce her understanding.
According to the teaching experts at Learning Press, not only are these multisensory experiences more exciting for our littlest ones, but they increase the odds that this information will be retained by the brain. “When we teach using multiple senses simultaneously, the neurons in the respective parts of the brain fire at the same time and wire together to create neural networks. These neural networks allow the brain to store and retrieve information much more effectively and efficiently.”
Fascinating, right?! And another easy way for us to inspire our babies to start talking!
So grab that little stuffed lamb the next time you read about Mary or a bucket from the sand toys when you read about Jack and Jill. Let your baby look at them and hold them to get all their little neurons firing.
To summarize, this isn’t about teaching your baby how to talk. It’s about creating an environment for your baby to absorb, practice and connect with language from birth. This environment revolves around rituals and routines, and is heavily layered in language (talking, music, reading, tv and video). In this setting, your baby is an active participant in everyday life long before they can actually communicate. Emphasis is placed on using language in context and supporting your baby by building on what they know.
It is my hope that through these simple, free strategies, we can have more talking babies and fewer frustrated parents and tiny humans. If you try these tips, I would love to know how they work for you! And if you already have a talking baby, I would love to know if you have other tips to add to this list. Please share your thoughts below.
Editor’s Closing Note: If you are speaking to your baby in more than one language, do not expect your baby to be an early talker. It is my understanding and experience that babies who are learning more than one language at a time will not speak until they understand both languages and can distinguish between them. Amazing, right? And the other good news is that when they start speaking, they will be fluent in both languages and will likely be able to translate for others before they are five years old. Incredible!