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5 Ways to Help Baby Learn Every Day

Here’s what to keep in mind throughout the day to positively impact baby’s speech and language development.
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Updated January 4, 2024
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Ever catch yourself thinking out loud around baby? “Oh, look, Mama spilled coffee on her shirt again. She’s so silly!” While you may chalk up your narration to a serious case of sleep deprivation, it turns out talking to baby is not only normal, but it also helps foster their language development in crucial ways. “Just talking to your baby positively supports language development,” says Jenna Marr, MA, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist at Children’s Therapy Corner in Michigan. She explains that everything a parent or caregiver does—from thinking out loud to interacting with baby and even gesturing or making facial expressions—fosters language development.

Read on for more tips to help encourage baby’s early learning while going about your day, as well as how to identify potential problems early on.

Sure, it sounds simple, but Marr notes that the most effective thing parents and caregivers can do to support baby’s language development is to “spend intentional time” together. Meaningful interactions, like when you talk to baby, read or play games, help establish the neural pathways in the brain responsible for language. “Engaging with your baby through talking and singing can really help prelinguistic skills, which are the foundational skills that lead to language,” she explains. “These support a child’s ability to communicate and support how a child interacts and plays with others. Kids learn through playing!”

To help make that happen, Marr suggests the following strategies:

  • Be face-to-face with baby. “By being face-to-face, babies can imitate coos and babbling sounds as well as try to make new sounds,” says Marr.
  • Use different voices. Many caregivers naturally use high-pitched tones or change their voice when talking to babies, and Marr explains that those different ways of talking actually help a baby learn how to speak. This is also known as “parentese.”
  • Be expressive in your play. Singing, making silly gestures or playing games like patty-cake and peek-a-boo are all ways to show baby communication isn’t just verbal. Imitating gestures and funny faces, clapping and waving “are stepping stones to imitating sounds and words,” Marr explains.

If you’re feeling weird about describing brushing your teeth or feeding the dog out loud, don’t. It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to boost baby’s brain development. “I highly recommend incorporating babies into your daily routines to keep them engaged and learning,” says Marr. “Parents can narrate what they are doing throughout the day.”

She suggests working narration into everyday actions:

  • Chat through a bath. “During bathtime, parents can talk about the water, label body parts while washing baby or play anticipatory ‘ready, set, go!’ games,” says Marr.
  • Talk through tasks. “Imitate babbling or play peek-a-boo while doing diaper changes or while putting away laundry,” Marr encourages. Create a back-and-forth conversation (also known as serve and return). You could say, “I’m taking off your diaper. You’re all wet! Let’s clean you up. Oh, this wipe is cold!” and then pause and wait for baby to smile or babble before you respond.
  • Involve baby at mealtime. “I love recommending that parents put baby in a highchair next to them while in the kitchen,” Marr adds. “They can give a dish to baby to explore while they wash dishes or give baby a towel to imitate drying dishes. They can also give them tastes of food when they are ready or have them pretend to stir their own pot while cooking dinner.”

Marr encourages parents and caregivers to consider how they’re using screens around baby. She’s not out to shame any parent who wants a scroll from time to time, but Marr does want parents to understand that it’s not necessarily what screens can do, but what they can’t do— that is, replace the face-to-face interaction that forms a baby’s brain—that is the problem.

The hard truth is that every time a parent is lost in a screen, they are potentially missing out on an interaction with baby that could foster crucial development. “During these early months and years, it is important for parents to be aware that while we are on our phone or screen, we miss countless opportunities for engagement and interaction—a quick glance, a smile, a wave or a sound to be imitated—and babies can lose opportunities to initiate and respond to these interactions as well if they are focused on a highly visually stimulating screen,” Marr explains. “These interactions add up over time.” This might not mean banishing screens from your life completely, but it could mean making sure you get lots of screen-free time together.

Baby’s hearing was likely screened shortly after birth. Knowing the results of the newborn hearing screening and acting quickly is key. The CDC notes that 1.7 out of every 1,000 babies screened in 2019 had some degree of hearing loss, but when a baby fails their screening, it doesn’t always mean the loss is permanent. It’s important to know for sure as soon as possible—ideally before baby is three weeks old. If your baby failed their newborn hearing screening, a rescreening needs to be scheduled to confirm a hearing loss quickly.

Any type of hearing loss can have a long-term impact on baby’s brain and development. “Hearing loss in babies can impact their ability to learn and understand words,” says Marr. “Having these challenges at an early age without identifying and addressing hearing loss can delay the onset of language. Hearing loss can also impact their ability to communicate effectively with peers and to listen and learn across environments.”

Even if baby passes the newborn screening, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of hearing loss and spot it early. “Even a mild hearing loss can impact speech and language development,” Marr notes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs of hearing loss in babies can include:

  • not startling or responding to loud noises;
  • not turning their head to a sound after 6 months old;
  • failing to say any single word, like “dada” or “mama,” by 12 months old;
  • hearing some sounds but not others;
  • and turning their head to look at you, but not when you say their name.

If you do suspect a hearing loss, the first place to start is with the child’s pediatrician, who can help set up hearing testing. From there, Marr explains that a visit with a pediatric audiologist—a professional who specializes in evaluating children’s hearing—may be warranted. “A good team of health professionals will support parents through decision-making and individualized plans for the baby and family based on type, severity and onset of hearing loss as well as the needs, goals and preferences of the child and family,” she explains.

While many newborns are screened for hearing loss shortly after birth, Marr points out that frequent ear infections can sometimes be a culprit of short- or long-term hearing loss and should be monitored closely by a physician. “Varying degrees of hearing loss can impact development,” she notes.

Ear infections can be hard to detect in babies who can’t tell you their ears hurt yet. If your baby is showing signs of an ear infection, be sure to call your doctor to have your little one evaluated. Ear infection symptoms in babies can include:

  • tugging on their ears;
  • running a fever;
  • being fussy and irritable;
  • not wanting to eat;
  • and sleep interruptions.

If you suspect your child may have a hearing loss, resources like HearingFirst.org can help support you and your child in their hearing journey.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

Sources

Jenna Marr, MA, CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist at Children’s Therapy Corner. For over 11 years, she has dedicated her career to working with children and their families to support speech, language and feeding development. In her role as the Director of Education and Community Engagement, Jenna shares her passion through supporting educational growth with colleagues, families and the community.

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