Even the most well-intentioned parents may not know how important it is to build their babies’ vocabulary during the first few years of life. The reality is, 90 percent of babies’ brain development occurs during their first five years. So how can we help our children develop language skills and set them up for success in school and in life? It’s easy — expose them to language from day one.
Narrate your day
Don’t let the fact that your baby hasn’t yet developed language skills stop you from talking up a storm as part of your daily routine. Studies show that the number of words and breadth of vocabulary heard by a child in his or her early years can have a dramatic effect on his or her language skills and intellectual development. Tracy Cutchlow, co-author with John Medina of Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five, says that kids spoken to more frequently in their first three years have an IQ that’s one-and-a-half times higher than those who aren’t. So as you’re preparing your meal, don’t just say you’re making eggs. Use rich, expressive language to tell baby about the delicious, hot, yellow scrambled eggs you’re preparing — eggs that come from chickens who live on a farm. Yes, you may feel a little strange voicing your every thought, but your baby is soaking it all in.
Begin reading immediately
It is never too early to begin reading to your baby. Once you bring your little one home from the hospital, get started right away. Morning, naptime and bedtime are great times to cuddle with baby on your lap and read aloud. Hint: Don’t feel like you have to stick to the words on the page. (After all, even your favorite books can get a little boring by the 200th time you’ve read them.) Use the pictures as a jumping-off point, and share more information about the people, items and places in the book. As baby gets older, involve him or her even more by asking questions and making story time an interactive experience.
It turns out there’s a reason for “parentese,” the style of speaking most parents automatically adopt when speaking to their babies. Parentese is characterized by long vowel sounds (“What a sweeet baaaaaaby!”); a high-pitched, singsong tone of voice; and exaggerated facial expressions. Not only is it fun, but talking this way grabs baby’s attention and helps parents engage in a pretty magical way with their newborns. The difference between parentese and baby talk? With parentese, you’re using real words as opposed to the nonsensical sounds that characterize baby talk (which does nothing to build baby’s vocabulary).
Use flash cards
Flash cards can be wonderful tools to spark open-ended conversations with your baby. Choose flash cards with interesting pictures, like the Flash of Brilliance alphabet cards, or make your own. You can make your own alphabet flash cards with old magazines, scissors and glue. Paste a letter in both uppercase and lowercase onto a sheet of paper along with several images of items whose names start with that letter. Your “Aa” page might be filled with images of an apple, an airplane, an ant and an antelope. Use the cards to show baby the sounds letters make and to talk about all the interesting things on each card. Each time you look at the cards with baby, you’ll have a different, vocabulary-rich experience.
Go on an adventure
Expose your baby to new experiences and new vocabulary by taking him or her out for an adventure. It’s one thing to show pictures of swings, slides and kids in a book and another thing entirely to expose baby to the sights and sounds of a park in person. The zoo, library and grocery store are just a few examples of places you can go to show baby what exists outside the comfort of your home. Just remember to talk, talk, talk!
Rhyme and sing
The repetitive rhyming in many children’s songs helps to build phonemic awareness, or the ability to manipulate sounds to make new words (turning “bat” into “rat,” “cat” or “sat”). Using nursery rhymes and songs is also a fun way to introduce baby to new words. But what do you do if you don’t know many songs or rhymes? Check out a Mother Goose book from the library, buy a set of CDs or download classic children’s sing-along songs. Another fun way to expose your baby to music is to attend music classes with baby at the library or with a group like Music Together.
We love the idea of a book-themed baby shower, with each guest bringing her favorite book as a gift.