Understanding Your Baby’s Language Development

Over the course of your little one’s first year, his language skills will grow by leaps and bounds. Here’s how to encourage Baby to talk even more.

First Words

It’s one of the biggest questions of your baby’s first year: Will she say “Mama” or “Dada”? You’ll probably hear that special first word by the time she turns 1—and then there’s no stopping your little chatterbox. Around 15 months, she’ll start using simple consonant sounds to form words such as “up,” “more,” and “baby.” At 18 months, her vocabulary explodes and she should begin picking up several new words a day.

Although you can’t rush your child’s natural development, you can help boost her language skills. “The best thing you can do is talk to your 1-year-old continuously throughout the day,” says Michelle Macias, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “You may feel silly saying, ‘Now I’m putting the potatoes into the pot,’ but this constant exposure to language will help her learn.” Check out these simple ways to get the most out of your toddler talks.

Watch His Hands

When it comes to a 1-year-old’s vocabulary, they understand a lot more words than they can actually say. “For 1-year-olds, using gestures as nonverbal communication is an important skill you can encourage,” says Dr. Macias.

When your toddler waves at you, chime in with “Bye-bye!” or when he points at something, ask, “Do you want the cup?” You can also play games with gestures, like pat-a-cake, or make motions with your hands when you sing “The Wheels on the Bus” to help him connect the words with the actions.

Use Real Words

Although it’s okay if your 1-year-old calls his bottle “ba ba,” you and your spouse should use the proper words to make sure that you’re not always talking down to your toddler. “Parents need to stay one step ahead of their child’s stage,” says Stuart Teplin, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Concord, North Carolina. By using real words instead of baby talk, you’re helping him to expand his vocabulary.

Read the Right Way

Parents often make the mistake of rushing through the pages of a book because they’re tired and trying to get their child to bed. Instead, read to her throughout the day when you’re not rushed. Talk about what you’re seeing in the pictures. Say, “Look at that little boy. Does he look happy or sad?” Even asking her what sounds the animals in the pictures make gets her practicing speech skills.

Plan Playdates

Organize activities with kids your child’s age. Even if a group of 1-year-olds isn’t very chatty, being around peers gives them the chance to listen, interact, and test-drive their vocabulary in a social setting. Help out by saying, “Wow, she’s giving you the bear. Say, ‘Thank you!'”

Piggyback Words

Around 18 months, toddlers start using two-word combos to communicate. “Usually, they’ll put together an action plus an object, like ‘drink juice,’ or ‘read book,'” says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of speech pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Maryland. Teach her to string words together by adding one or two: If she says, “Ball,” you say, “Big ball” or “Throw your ball.”

Give Him Feedback

When he tries to say something, acknowledge his attempt in a positive way. “Don’t correct his speech,” says Paul. “Respond to the content of his message, rather than to how perfectly he says it.” For example, if he notices your husband leaving and says, “Daddy bye-bye,” jump in with “Yes, Daddy’s going to the store.”

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