When the Baby First Says Mama

I have been reading “How Smart Is Your Baby?, Develop and nurture your newborn’s full potential” by Glenn and Janet Doman and I wanted to share some of it with you. Right now, I am reading The Language Development Program from Birth to 12 Months chapter.

“Listening is key” ; “All sounds are language”; “When the baby knows you are listening, he will communicate as often possible.”; “It is vital for your baby to know that you know he is talking.”

Part V – Assigning Meaning To A Specific Sound

“Now consider the first word of a baby born in the United States. It is almost certain to be “Mama.” As it happens this is very easy specific sound to make. When a little American baby says “Mama.” for the first time  mother comes rushing over to him and smothers hm with kisses, “Yes, I am Mama!” she tells the baby. Every time the baby repeats the sound “Mama” the same thing happens. That night she proudly tells father, “The baby called me Mama today!”

“The truth is when the baby first says mama we do not have the ghost of an idea what the baby means. He may mean ‘mother’, he may mean ‘blanket’, or he may mean ‘food’.

Who knows?

Let’s assume this particular baby meant “blanket” but every time he says “Mama” he gets mother, not the blanket. At some point he says to himself, “Well, I am not getting my blanket with this but since I always seem to get mother I guess I’ll use this sound when I want mother and find some other way to say blanket.

If we ask a French mother, “What is the first word a baby says in France?”, she will say, “Why, Mama, of course!”

And when we ask “but what does that mean?” she will say, “It means me! It means mother.”

Again when we have no idea what the little French baby means when he first says “Mama” but our French mother also assumes he is talking about her and the baby quickly learns the effect that “Mama” has upon his mother.

If we go to Japan (feeling very confident now) we say to a Japanese mother, “Is Mama the first word that Japanese babies say?”

When she confirms that it is, we say, “And it means mother?”

She will stop us in our tracks and say, “No, Mama means food.”

Now we can propose that when a Japanese baby says “Mama” for the first time we don’t have a ghost of an idea what he means. He may mean “mother’, he may mean “blanket”, he may mean “food”. But every time the Japanese baby repeats the sound “Mama” he either gets a bottle to drink from or a breast to nurse from or a spoon full of food. He learns very quickly not to say “Mama” unless he is hungry.

In assuming that her baby wants food, the Japanese mother shows that she is a bit less egocentric than the rest of us. She is also probably closer to the truth.

(…)

The baby is looking at what works with mother and what does not work.

When he sees that she responds consistently, he will repeat the successful action.When the sound he makes does not produce a result, he abandons it.

If he makes sound and no one listens to him or responds to him, he will stop making sounds or will make them infrequently.”

I found this part of the book very interesting. I have noticed that my daughter always stares at my mouth when I am talking, moving her lips as she is trying to repeat after me. She is right now more interested in discovering parts of her body, playing with her hands and feet but she does enjoy having long conversation with me as well !

When did your baby say “Mama” for the first time and what was his/her first word? Bilingual families, which language came first?

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Comments

  1. I just love that book!

  2. I totally agree with this book! My daughter said mama very early but it wasn’t clear for me she was calling me…as this book said, it seemed to be more of a call to get attention or just the sound they make when babies cry when they are so little. And if we take it the other way round : that’s maybe why we are called “mama”, no? because it is the first sound we think we hear from our babies…(??)

    also being in a bilingual family, I find it funny to hear things differently : a french dog will bark “waf waf” and will bark “bau bau” in italian…how weird is that? in my past travels, we often laughed at the animals sounds in different languages!

    Now, Flavia is 13 months and she says mama, papa (pretty much the same in both languages!). And now, she says bébé : so, her first word is french!! 😉 (she loves dolls and babies!)

    • Sixtine and The Little Things says:

      Haha! You must be one proud mama – Sixtine was able to say “teti” for tetine and I thought the same thing: “Yay, her first word is French!”. But I am pretty sure most English-speaking babies start by saying “Dada” and not “Papa”…Sixtine says Papa and rarely says Dada…I am pretty excited because we are surrounded by English speaking people so I really want her to speak and love her maternal language.

  3. Wonderful article! We are linking to this great content on our
    website. Keep up the good writing.

  4. My son said ‘Nu-nu’ which is ‘boob first’. We called it that since the day he was born. And he only says it when he is ticked and wants me to lay him down for bed and aomeone else has him. His next word which he loves to say is Mom, not Mama. He repeats Mom-mom and crawls towards me. He is a little over 8 months now and he just started saying Da-da. — We are an English speaking household.

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