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The Sounds of Infancy: Decoding Baby Talk

Babies cry. A lot. After all, it’s the best way they have to communicate with you. But between the wails, you may notice an infant trying out other noises. In fact, babies make a range of sounds in their first year—from the delightful to the downright strange.

“Babies are very social,” says Prachi Shah, MD, a developmental pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston. “Making different sounds is their way of connecting with you and telling you what they want and need.” Those sometimes-wacky noises are also a sign that a baby is developing the skills required to get ready to talk. But what do her sounds mean? This cheat sheet will help you decode her communication.

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What are they? These high-pitched noises get your attention every time. Squealing usually means a baby is delighted (like during a game of peekaboo), but it can also indicate that he isn’t thrilled. So if the squealing doesn’t stop, make sure he’s not in any discomfort.

Want to hear more? To encourage those happy squeals, you don’t have to squeal yourself. It’s more helpful to respond to what’s inspiring his excitement: “Wow, you love it when I blow bubbles!” He can’t totally understand what you’re saying yet, but he can pick up on your tone and notice your facial expressions. This kind of back and forth is one of the best ways to boost a baby’s language development, Shah says. Using vocabulary to describe what the child is experiencing will help him pick up words, understand his feelings, and learn the rhythms of conversation.

What are they? You often hear this guttural noise when a baby is having a bowel movement, but she may also do it at other times to relieve tension or to express frustration or boredom. As a baby grows, her grunts may become demands. “Toward the end of the first year, a baby will grunt, with or without pointing, to indicate that she wants something she doesn’t have the words for yet,” says Roberta Golinkoff, PhD, professor of education, psychology, and linguistics at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Want to hear more? Pay close attention when you suspect an infant’s not just letting off steam. If she sees you respond to her requests, she’ll understand that language can equal action.

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What are they? Although this throaty noise isn’t as common as some other baby sounds, within the first six months, many babies do growl—and it doesn’t mean they’re unleashing their inner animal. At first, it’s just a reflex, like crying or gurgling. But an infant may start making growling sounds (grrr) on purpose because he likes the feeling it produces in his throat, says Diane Paul, PhD, director of speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. As a baby gets older, he may also growl to express displeasure, like when he doesn’t want to be smothered in kisses by Aunt Gretchen

Want to hear more? Growling back will show him that you get it—and it’s fun.

What are they? At around four months, a baby begins to chuckle … or even full on belly laugh! Initially, this sound is a physical response to something you’re doing, like tickling her knees or blowing air on her tummy. Later on, when a baby laughs at something external—the look on your face when she flings all of her food onto the floor, for instance—it means she’s starting to develop a sense of humor, and she clearly finds you amusing.

Want to hear more? Encouraging her new found funny bone is easy. Just keep doing silly things.

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What are they? A baby will start sighing naturally when he’s just a few weeks old because it feels good and eventually because he likes the way you react to it. In fact, sighing may actually serve a useful function. It can be a baby’s way of relaxing and letting you know that he is content.

Want to hear more? Try responding in kind using different lengths and pitches and giving him time to imitate you.

What are they? Babies start to babble at around four to six months, producing a steady stream of different vowel and consonant sounds that seem like they could be words but aren’t quite there yet. Children start with the easiest sounds, like “p,” “b,” and “m,” according to Diane Paul, PhD, director of speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. You’ll hear a lot of “puh puh puhs” or “buh buh buhs” at first. With more practice, babies add groups of sounds, like “tah tah, ba ba, bee bee.” These are the precursor to talking, so “muh muh” may become “mama” and “ba ba” may become “bottle.”

Want to hear more? There are lots of things you can do to help. When she pauses, babble back. Try new sounds and pitches to see if she’ll try to imitate you and make up babble songs. Being responsive will help teach her the patterns of speech and conversation.

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Parents magazine.