Teaching Infants to Talk

Mumtaz Mahal had 13 children and probably by the 10th or so, she stopped waiting for that wonderful moment when they said their first words. But for all the rest of us parents, few things are as eagerly awaited as that precious first word. Well before its time for the baby to start talking, we strain to interpret the gurgles and cooing sounds as mispronounced efforts at mama or dada. But sometimes, we are still waiting even after other younger children are saying their third and fourth words. In such circumstances its no consolation to be told that you’ll wish he had never begun in a few months time. Or that different children follow different timetables. The only thing you want to hear is an intelligible word, preferably mama, spoken by the baby.

While its true that different babies follow different schedules and that often girls talk earlier than boys, there are ways of hastening the entire process. Try these tips for initiating a lifetime’s conversation with your infant that begins with ‘how wonderful’ and ends with ‘can’t you ever shut up?’

  • Talk to the baby – Babies learn by example. If they see you talking and hear the words, they are much more likely to copy you. Talking however does not mean giving instructions or yelling or lecturing in any way. It does mean a simple one-sided conversation as you go about your normal business of the day, with frequent eye contact to ensure that she knows you’re talking to her. And don’t talk too much or she may never learn to get a word in edgeways!
  • Listen to her – pay attention to her gurgles and her attempts to talk back. Try and understand what she’s trying so hard to tell you and she’ll learn that talking is worth the effort as it gets your attention and a response. Coo and gurgle back by all means but remember that the aim is to get her to use words not sign language.
  • Repeat yourself – again and again and again. She’s learning from you even though she may not yet be ready to try her speaking skills on you. Use simple language, a few familiar baby names and lots of labeling to get the words familiar to her.
  • Sing to her or make up silly rhymes. Children by and large love music and the varied tempo and inflections are more likely to keep her attention. The rhymes also teach her that language is playful and that each word doesn’t have to be perfect every time. Make up a labeling song to sing as you massageher.
  • Read to her – reading is good for even small babies as it provides a closeness and greater vocabulary. Get books with large colourful pictures of other babies or ordinary household items. Point to the pictures as you read about them. Pause at places to ‘wait’ for her responses and pretend to answer her ‘questions’
  • Be animated in your responses – this is not the time for subtlety. Ham it up a little, exaggerate your facial expressions and greet all her early efforts with enthusiasm. Be careful however that you don’t sound too insincere or you may put her off.
  • Don’t expose her to too much TV or radio as both inhibit active speaking by encouraging only the habit of listening. In fact if you have to have the radio on, try and stick to music so that she doesn’t learn that talking is a one way street.
  • Never talk over her at mealtimes or family occasions. As far as possible involve her in all conversations and encourage others to do the same.
  • Don’t lose your temper and your patience – she needs to feel loved and safe to begin talking. The more you frighten her or create a bogey out of the whole talking thing, the more time it will take. Remember she will talk eventually. If you are really worried, get reassurance from a doctor but act casual in front of the baby.

None of these methods are foolproof. Some children seem to delight in silence even when you know perfectly well that they understand everything you say. There are cases of two year olds, particularly boys, who are still communicating through gestures. Don’t panic if yours seems to be of their number – when he talks it will be fluently and grammatically. The worst inhibitor for most children is your tension on this topic, so relax and enjoy the peace and quiet for a few more days!

Even after your baby is prattling away, its important to keep the lines of communication to open. The more you converse, the better you listen and the less you judge, the better your chances to survive the adolescent years intact. So keep up the good work and make these methods an integral part of your family life!

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