14 Simple first words to teach your baby

By teaching babies a simple, straight-forward vocabulary, you can promote more positive communication experiences.

Recently, we were lucky enough to talk to Erika Cardamone — the licensed speech and language pathologist behind the insightful blog, The Speechies — to get some insight into easy and effective first words to teach babies.

First, Erika explains that since babies are fascinated with faces, they’ll be watching your eyes and mouth intently when you speak. She also says repetition is the key to learning.

“Babies as young as 4 months old benefit from repetitive sounds and words,” says Cardamone.

With that in mind, these 15 words below are “visual” sounds — in other words, they are sounds you can “see” (containing letters like “m,” “p,” and “b”).

For optimal word learning, Cardamone recommends you say each of these words 3-5 times within the same minute.

1. Mama/Dada

“Refer to yourself throughout the day. For example, say things like: ‘Mama opens the door.’ ‘Mama gets the milk.’ ‘Mama reads a book,’” says Cardamone.

2. More

“During snack time, give your child only a few items at a time. For example, give three Cheerios, and say, ‘More? Do you want more Cheerios? Mama gives you more.’ You have to create a moment for communication, so hold back from giving the entire snack at once,” Cardamone recommends.

3. Up

Says Cardamone, “Babies will often raise their arms to be lifted, so after playtime on the floor or when pulling them out of the high chair, be sure to say, ‘You want to come up? Mama lift you up. Up, Up, Up Baby,’ as you lift. Use up during play time with a ball, ‘Ball goes up!”

4. Open

“It’s something you do more than you think, so be sure to narrate it,” says Cardamone. “Opening containers at feeding time, opening books, opening doors. Again, repetition is the way to maximize word learning for babies. Say (or sing!) ‘Open, open, opening the door.’”

5. Uh-Oh

“Babies just love when things go wrong,” says Cardamone. “Usually there is an emotional reaction to something spilling or the making of a mess, which creates a higher saliency for word learning. Exaggerate an ‘Uh-oh!’ with wide eyes during snack time when the bowl of puffs falls on the floor, or your block tower collapses. Make it your crisis too, and repeat it over and over ‘Uh-oh, the blocks fell down! Oh no, uh-oh!’”

6. Hello/Bye-Bye

“Social greetings are great first words because there are lots of opportunity for use,” says Cardamone. “Greet your baby in the morning, ‘Hello Baby! Mama says hello,’ and greet family as they walk in, ‘Hello Mama! Hello Dada! Hello GG!’ Babies love visuals, so be sure to wave in gesture as you say the words.”

7. Eat

“Verbs are great first words since we use them a lot and can provide a lot of variations in repetition,” Cardamone says. “‘Time to eat. Baby eats carrots! Yum, yum, eating carrots. Mama’s turn, I eat carrots.’ It’s a visual sound, since your lips are moving back as you say it, and you can always turn it into a song, ‘I like to eat… eat… eat.. carrots and potatoes! You like to eat eat eat…’”

8. Book

“Book reading is something a lot of us do every day, and it’s a great word to learn because it has the visual ‘b’ in the front,” says Cardamone. “‘Hmmm, which book? Mama reads a book. Open book. More books?’”

9. Car/Beep

“Often, speech sounds are used as words in those early language stages,” says Cardamone. “Use cars during play using non-words such as ‘vroom’ and ‘beep beep.’ Or, as you’re beginning your adventure outside, say ‘We’re going in the car … beep beep! Here we go!’ Outside on walk, ‘Mama sees the car, look! Beep beep, there it goes.’”

10. Baby

“Although babies don’t typically refer to themselves as ‘baby,’ they will often identify with pictures of babies in books, or a baby-doll toy, giving it that emotional salience for faster word learning,” says Cardamone. “During pretend play with a baby doll or in books, narrate, ‘Look! Baby’s crying. Don’t be sad baby. Baby’s hungry. Eat baby. Mama will hug baby.’”

11. Bubbles

“These ‘b’ words keep reappearing, but they are so simple to teach,” Cardamone says. “Bubbles are great because they have the repetitive ‘b’ within the word. ‘Mama blows bubbles. Baby blows bubbles. Pop bubbles. More bubbles?’ Bubbles also tend to keep their attention for longer periods of time, allowing for even more repetition!”

12. Wash

“This provides another visual sound as your lips round, and is a great verb with ease for repetition,” says Cardamone. “‘Wash hands before snack. Mama washes too.’ In the bath, it’s great to pair with body parts for word learning. ‘Wash belly, wash feet, wash toes! Washing.. Washing… Washing all over, don’t forget the nose!’”

13. Splash

“Although it’s a difficult word to say with all of those consonants, it has that emotional saliency because its so much fun for babies,” says Cardamone. “It usually comes out as ‘pah pah’ or ‘puh puh’ at first. But bath time allows for multiple repetitions and they are usually wanting more! ‘Mama splash, splash, splash!” ‘Baby splash!’ ‘More splashing?’ ‘Oh my goodness, so much splashing!’”

14. Inside

“Using ‘inside’ tends to be more salient than just ‘in,” so provide opportunities for learning this concept during clean up time,” recommends Cardamone. “‘Blocks go inside, inside the bag.’ Or when packing the diaper bag for a day out, ‘Snacks go inside, bottle goes inside, books go inside, and baby goes inside the stroller.’”

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