Understanding Words

You probably can’t get enough of saying your little one’s name, and she can’t get enough of hearing it. Starting in her very first months, she’s listening closely to everything you say, absorbing language like a little sponge. Your baby’s receptive language skills — in other words, her understanding of words and sounds — begin to develop as early as month 1, but it takes time for baby’s brain to sort out individual words from the flow of sounds all around her. One day, though, you’ll say your little one’s name, and lo and behold, she’ll turn her head and look at you expectantly, because she understands that her name is a word, and that word has meaning. One word down, a few million to go!

When to expect it: Most babies understand and respond to their own names by 5 to 6 months of age. Receptive language (the understanding that words have meaning) develops on a different timeline than expressive language (the ability to say words with meaning), and your baby is likely to understand what you’re saying long before she’s able to say any recognizable words back to you. Here’s a look at roughly what to expect when:

Birth to 3 months: Your baby will understand that crying is communication and will recognize her caregivers’ voices.
3 to 6 months: Your little one will respond to her name, react to music and to loud sounds and respond to changes in your tone of voice.
6 to 12 months: She’ll understand simple words used every day, such as “cup,” “book” and “bottle.” By 10 months, most children can understand and identify who you mean when you say “Mommy” and “Daddy.” (If your baby isn’t using gestures by month 12 — for example, she isn’t waving or cooing — you might want to talk to her doctor about whether there’s an underlying medical issue like hearing loss that could be causing the delay.)
How to help your baby discover it: The best way to help your baby understand words is to talk, read and sing to her from the very beginning. Even reading the newspaper out loud to your newborn helps her begin the task of separating sounds into words and sentences. As she grows and begins to spend more hours awake and alert, direct the verbal flow to her — your baby will be eager to listen. Narrate your day, describing what you’re doing as you bathe your baby, make lunch or play with the dog. Speak the names of objects and people. Read often to your baby, naming and pointing to the pictures she sees. Use colors, textures and sizes when you talk about objects.