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Why Babies Say Mama and Dada First

The science behind baby’s first words

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It’s that precious first word new parents wait for months to hear. After endless late-night feedings, burp sessions, and crying jags, it’s huge to finally realize your little one is saying mama or dada. But why does it usually end up being this particular set of sounds—and not something else? The fact is, the science of baby talk is better understood now than ever before.
Why Babies Say Mama and Dada First

According to a recent study from the University of Edinburgh, 18-month-old babies learn new words more easily when they consist of repeated syllables (think ba-ba for “bottle”), rather than a mixture of sounds (as in dee-ba for, well, whatever she’s trying to say).  

Researchers said that previous studies indicate infants learn visual sequences and musical notes more easily when they offer repeat patterns; now they know this tendency applies to word learning, too. The findings help to validate what many parents around the world already know well and practice often—that baby talk makes good sense when it comes to language development. It’s appealing to infants and comes rather naturally to new parents (even those working on very little sleep).

5 Ways to Keep the Words Flowing

Want to pump up your baby’s vocabulary and have some fun at the same time? Give the following a try:

1. Ditch the embarrassment. As the saying goes, just do it. There’s no wrong way to talk to your baby. And don’t worry about what other people might be thinking or how you sound. Your baby loves your voice—she’s been hearing it since her days in utero. Some dads may feel a little funny speaking “baby,” especially since many sounds spoken to infants are high-pitched. But once you’ve gotten over this (very normal) feeling, simply use and repeat the sounds that most closely match the objects your baby sees. For example, ba-ba could stand in for “bottle,” tum-tum for “belly,” and choo choo, of course, for “train.”

2. Add some rhythm. An easy way to encourage your baby’s first words is to put them to music or create a few fun rhymes. Choose ones you already know, such as “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” or “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” (with a moo moo here!). Singing these repeated sounds is soothing to babies, and you’ll be helping to build a bond just by using your voice. Not much of a crooner? Try reciting poems that rhyme, song lyrics from your youth, or any little ditty that has repeated syllables.

3. Narrate your day. If you feel as though you’re running out of baby talk, describe the regular routine you’ve established with your tot. Feeding time: nom-nom (yummy), boo-boo (blueberries) or na-na (bananas). Continue at playtime, naming the objects he seems interested in and giving him a chance to echo you or come up with his own phrase. End the day with a bath and story hour, working new first words into each activity. Every topic counts when it comes to baby banter, so choose what you’re comfortable with and your tot will likely follow.

4. Take a break. Few people, including babies, can chat all day without tiring, so be aware of your tot’s mood when you’re practicing these first words. If you find she is turning her head away, is starting to fuss, or seems a bit bored, stop the chatter for a while and let her rest. And when you start up again, give her a chance to take the lead so you can see what kinds of sounds she’d like to make.

5. Get physical. No, you don’t need to dance around, but making small gestures and eye contact with your infant is an important part of language development. By meeting his gaze and naming his toys as you speak, you’re enhancing the experience and the learning. You’re also expressing how important he is to you. Your baby wants to hear your voice—he’s hanging on your every word—so keep up the good work and babble on.

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