There I sat, silently spooning infant oatmeal into my 9-month-old daughter’s eager mouth. Under normal circumstances I can chatter away with the best of them, but a recent spate of late nights had left me mute with exhaustion. I didn’t notice how quiet my kitchen had become until Elisabeth reminded me.”Dat?” she said, pointing to the refrigerator. “That’s the refrigerator,” I told her. “Mommy keeps food inside it, see?” I opened the door with a flourish worthy of Vanna White. “Dat?” she said, pointing to the juice carton. “That’s your apple juice. You love to drink your juice!” I was getting into it now. It was clear that Elisabeth wanted me to talk to her.

My daughter knew instinctively what research into early language development has underscored: Babies thrive on frequent conversations with us long before they can answer back in any reasonable rendition of English. Most experts agree that the more your baby hears you speak-and the more responsive you are to even her briefest babbles-the more you enhance her inborn ability to acquire language. True, babies may not understand all of the words we speak, especially during the first half of their first year, but we communicate far more to them than we may realize,

“Throughout their first year, babies are listening to the melody of sounds and learning to break them up into words, phrases, and clauses. They are doing mental gymnastics of extraordinary proportions,” says Kathy Hirsh- Pasek, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia. Research has found, for example, that 2-day-old babies can recognize the difference between their mother’s language, which they heard while in the womb, and a foreign one. Other studies have found that by 4 ½ months babies can recognize their own name and know when a spoken sentence is coming to an end. By 9 months they begin to understand specific words; some babies know as many as 200 by their first birthday.

But babies are born only with a proclivity for language. They need frequent daily exposure to it in order for the brain circuits that process language to develop fully. ‘The ability to talk is not just lying there until one day the baby suddenly says, ‘Hi, Morn!” says Jean Berko Gleason, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Boston University.

Of course, just listening to language is not enough. “Interaction is what’s important,” says Gleason. Even if they’re too young to understand your actual words, babies can learn the rudiments of language, but only if they focus their attention on what you’re saying. So the key to helping babies develop verbal skills is to engage them in conversation they enjoy.

The kind of talk that interests babies most falls into two categories, according to Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. One is self talk, in which you discuss what you’re doing for your baby (“I’m changing your diaper”), and the other is parallel talk, in which you respond to what the baby is doing (“You’re kicking your legs and the water goes splash, splash”). Both require that you follow the baby’s lead. Keep talking as long a your baby is eagerly listening (he’ll make eye contact, babble, or giggle), and quit when he signals he’s had enough (he’ll turn his head away, arch his back, or cry). This also teaches him about taking turns, the foundation of all communication. When he coos or babbles, be quiet and listen. Then respond by repeating the same sound or saying, “Oh, I see!”

This sort of baby talk comes naturally to most parents. But as I learned myself, there are times when exhaustion, distraction, or just plain self-consciousness can keep words from tripping off your tongue. If you’re at a loss for words, the following tips can help.

Focus on the mundane. Since this will interest your baby the most, go ahead and tell her that you’re putting the dirty clothes into the washing machine.

Don’t force yourself. If it makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to speak “motherese,” the high-pitched tone many people (not just moms) use with babies. True, studies show that newborns find motherese soothing. But babies do hear and respond to lower-pitched voices.

Read picture books. Reading to your baby is one of the most important things you can do for her development. It enables her to practice focusing her attention, to connect sounds with specific objects, and to begin to understand that things can be categorized and named-an important building block for future learning. Most of all, books give you something to talk about. Babies favor books with simple, realistic renditions of people and objects that play a big role in their life  (bottle, doggie, shoes). Rather than just identifying the pictures, talk about them for as long as your baby seems interested.

Play word games. Add extra dialogue to peekaboo by saying, “Where’s Mommy? I can’t see you,” when you hide your face. Your baby will laugh when your face reappears and will try to keep the game going by kicking his legs, giggling, or even trying to cover his own face. The other favorite: Ask, “How big is Tommy?” Then hold your arms and hands out to your sides and say, ‘Tommy is this big!” He’ll learn to respond by opening his own arms and hands.

Recite. You won’t short-change your baby if you sometimes substitute memorized lines for spontaneous speech- although it’s best to stick to simple nursery rhymes. Babies respond to their rhythm and the animation in your voice.

You’ll know you’re succeeding in encouraging your baby’s penchant for language if she passes readily from one language milestone to the next. If she seems stalled, check with your pediatrician. . But don’t worry if your baby says few or no words by her first birthday. Understanding speech is the cornerstone of verbal ability. And the key to developing this understanding is for you to teach her the art of conversation.