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Language & Learning

Don't Understand Baby's Babbling? Science Says Fake It

New research suggests that pretending to understand your baby boosts language development

If you can't make heads or tails out of your baby's babbling, don't worry. Pretending you understand those coos (even when you're clueless!) may be the best thing you can do to help your baby learn to talk.

Research has long suggested that babies who hear more words throughout the day pick up language faster. It makes sense that talking to your baby promotes language development, but for the first time research shows that how you converse with your baby may be just as important as how often you do it.

A study published in Infancy, the official journal of the International Society on Infant Studies, found that there were differences in language development among babies when their mothers were responsive to their babbling.

Babies whose mothers pretended to understand what their babies were saying and repeated it back to them made the most language progress. Through time, they even began to direct their babbling towards their mothers. Babies whose mothers responded to their babbling by attempting to redirect their attention made less language progress and were less inclined to target their babbling at their moms down the line.

"It's not that we found responsiveness matters," said study author Julie Gros-Louis in a statement. "It's how a mother responds that matters. The infants were using vocalizations in a communicative way, in a sense, because they learned they are communicative."

The take-away is simple. How you chat with your baby can set the stage for future language development. Get started with these tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Keep the conversation going. Well before a baby can talk or even coo, they understand what you're saying. Narrate your activities throughout the day and make sure to give your baby time to respond to your words through smiles or gestures.

Teach by example (from the very start!) Before your baby begins babbling, you can still model two-way conversations with your baby. Use a mixture of baby talk and grown up speak to mimic a conversation between you and your baby.

Play the imitation game. Pretend you understand your baby's babbles, even when you don't, and imitate them. Try expanding on their babbling to show them how language builds upon itself. "Da-da," for example, can become "Da-da? Da-da is at work. Ma-ma is here with you."

Use your whole body. Talking isn't the only way to communicate. Remember to mimic your baby's smiles and facial expressions, and use gestures and body movements to communicate too.