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Simple Guidelines for Talking to Babies

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

Once upon a time there was an infant and early childhood development specialist who asked a friend if they had started reading, signing (the friend knows American Sign Language [ASL]) and talking to their newborn. The friend kind of looked at the specialist like they had three heads and said something along the lines of "Well, since my baby can't understand language yet, I'm waiting until they are older to teach ASL and read to them." The specialist, being a little mind blown, chuckled and asked, "Well, how do you think babies and young children learn language in the first place?" The two began discussing various aspects of infant development in the contexts of language and social emotional development. And, in the end, the friend began reading and talking a little more to the baby, maybe happily ever after. In honor of this exchange, learn about the importance of talking to, reading to, and signing to babies.

Now, race and culture were not mentioned in the introduction, but it's important to point them layer them into the conversation. All people involved in the introduction are Black. Both of the adults were from low income families of origins and upbringing. So, while they were also both highly educated, they each had to navigate a lifetime of interactions with the world based on their understanding of language. In some cases, their use of African American Vernacular (AAVE), the lack of AAVE, and the way that teachers and professors perceived them had a negative impact on their levels of confidence to use written, spoken, and signed language. The point of this article is to help readers understand the importance of using langauge at the outset of human development. Language. Not a particular language, but language in general.

When Do Babies Learn Language?

The human brain is wired for language acquisition. There is research to support that the infant brain starts to detect language in utero at approximately 29 weeks gestation for hearing babies. During their first year of life, infants begin honing their ability to hear intonational and auditory contrasts in their native language. As monolingual infants sharpen their ability to hear dinsticitions within their own language, they lose the ability to hear such contrasts not represented in their native language. This flexibility is traded off for quickness and automaticity in monolingual infants. However, infants raised in bilingual environments increasingly become able to distinguish between their two languages, thus increasing the fluidity of their language acquisition process.

Evidence suggests that children can demonstrate an understanding of words two or three months before they are able to accurately produce those words. Behaviorists believe that Babies produce babbling to imitate sounds of their caregiver, with a secondary goal of reinforcement, which means the more a caregiver talks to, smiles at, and praises babbling in their infant, the more the infant will work to use language as a form of communication.

For babies who are Deaf or born with various levels of hearing, spoken languages may be out of reach. Therefore, there is an increased need for sign language exposure and acquisition. Signed languages, such as American Sign Language, allow for early language development and shows earlier expressive abilities than spoken languages. For example, an average hearing baby can sign, 'I want milk please' six month to a year before they would be able to developmentally produce that sentence with their voice box.

How Caregivers Support Language Acquisition

Caregivers can help scaffold and increase an infant's understanding of language by responding to their child’s physical actions or experiences by labeling them. By combining manual or spoken responses with child’s gestures, caregivers create a scaffold upon which children can understand communicative interactions. The growth of a child’s vocabulary is heavily dependent on conversational input. These findings are similar when exploring language acquisition in Deaf infants whose parents use a signed language such as American Sign Language.

Unfortunately, there are factors that slow and sometimes alter the positive trajectory of language acquisition in infants. Children from families of higher socioeconomic status (SES) environments tend to have more advanced vocabulary than infants raised in families from low SES backgrounds. This is due to differences in access to resources for families based on income. Similarly, research has found that highly educated caregivers tend to provide up to three times more conversation input than less educated families. Interestingly, however, the friend from the introduction was highly educated, bilingual, and considered middle to upper SES, so studies don't capture everything. Other predictors of developing language in infants include social interaction (quality of attachment, parent responsiveness) and general intellectual climate (i.e., reading books and encouraging attention to surroundings).

The Best Times To Use Language with Young Children

When are the best times to use langague with babies? The short answer is just about every waking moment! Narrate your actions to children. If you are changing their diaper, talk your way through each step. Let them know beforehand that you are about to change their diaper. Discuss the temperatures and textures that they are feeling on their bottom, label the sounds and facial expressions that they are making during the event. Tell them about what will happen next. Maybe you feel silly doing it at first because it's new, but in reality, if you understand that a baby or young child is a person, why wouldn't you talk to them and tell them what's about to happen. Isn't that part of the social rules of respect for many, if not most or all, cultures?

Black childre reading an oversized booked

Read to them. Let's face, baby books and like board books can be a bit repetitive, sometimes, for adults. So, you don't have to only read children's books. Read about travel, read about cooking, read about the things that give you joy. The point is for the baby to hear and see the changes in your voice inflections, facial expressions, your breath's cadence - you, know the rhythm of language. You can read packaging, cereal boxes, clothing labels, and just about anything with words that you understand, you can read to a baby for exposure to language.


Hopefully, today's article was straight to the point. Just in case you need a few takeaways, here they are.

  • Talk to babies in utero and beyond.

  • Sign to babies at birth.

  • There's no such thing as too early to read to a baby.

  • You can read other things besides baby board books, if you want.

For next week, we'll be discussing parenting through the chaos of separaion and divorce to include what children need during these transitions and how parents can help support them. In the meantime, engage babies and young children in conversations even if you think they are too young to understand what you mean. Make time for play through each day this week.

PlayfulLeigh (Playfully),

Dr. Dowtin


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Photo Creds:

Stock photos used from Wix with no identifiable photographer.

Last photo by Rain Bennett on Unsplash


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