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Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 11:58am

Baby’s First Words, More Than Just Babble

Babies learn to talk following an intricate biological progression. It may sound like babble, but those noises babies make represent distinct milestones along the road to talking. And the absence of sounds can be cause for concern. When GPB reporter Jeanne Bonner had her first child almost two years ago, she started recording the sounds of her baby’s voice. As she reports, Atlanta researchers are conducting the largest-ever study of infant vocal development.

Almost two years ago, I discovered the best sound I’d ever heard. I had just become a mom. And as a public radio reporter by profession, I naturally turned my recording equipment on my infant son, Leo, soon after he was born.

Listening to the recordings, I discovered the sheer delight of the sound of baby breathing.

Then I recorded him laughing, and I felt as if I’d stumbled upon the sound of God’s voice. (You have to hear his laugh. It’s incredible.)

As babbling gave way to words, he hit on the speech mother lode. Literally. He said the word, “Mamma.”

I also jotted down his new words in my journal: ball, book, dog and cat. After going down a slide, he’d even learned to say “whoa,” or as I call it, the greatest one-word review ever.

And it turns out my recordings and careful journaling are useful in detecting different stages in his speech development. That’s according to Dr. Gordon Ramsay, with the Marcus Center for Autism, which is part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

At his lab, he listens to snippets of recordings already collected from children he and his team are studying.

“Here we have an example of a little boy who is 9 months old beginning to babble,” he said.

On the recording, the child babbles what sounds like “nya, nya, nya.” And Ramsay says that’s what a healthy nine-month-old sounds like.

Most children begin to babble by about their first birthday. Children with autism, however, are typically delayed. And sometimes they never learn to babble. Ramsay says because autism has typically been diagnosed later in childhood, it’s often too late for some autistic children to ever develop normal speech ability. And that has a devastating effect on their ability to interact with others and lead healthy lives.

A baby’s babbling – something parents may consider mere prattle- is the key to healthy speech development. And a lack of babbling is an early sign something may be amiss.

“No human baby has ever learned to speak without going through that phase of babbling first,” Ramsay said. “So if a child doesn’t babble, doesn’t go through that babbling stage, they won’t move on any further in terms of speech development.”

A small device is helping Ramsay with data collection. It’s an audio recorder that parents slip into the front pocket of a specially-designed jumper their children wear once a month.

“It lets us make for the first time in whole-day audio recordings of a child’s life in the home as opposed to the very short 15-minute to hour-long recordings we were able to make in the lab,” he said.

According to the most recent data, one in 68 children is born autistic. With a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, Ramsay and his team will have recordings from 330 children over the course of their first three years’ of life. Until now, most studies of early vocal development included 8 to 10 children, he said.

Ramsay believes it will create the largest database ever collected of infant vocal recordings. And the study could help autistic children learn to speak because ideally researchers hope to be able to diagnose the disease much earlier.

Back at my home speech lab, Leo was talking and his Mamma was recording him. He now knows more than 30 words that he says regularly, including “car.”

Fellow parents tell me before I know it, that one word will morph into this question: “Hey, Mom can I borrow the car?”

But at least that will mean he’s learned to talk.