Babies may be able to learn new words for things outside their daily routines well before their first birthday, a new study suggests.

Researchers say the findings call into question the notion that babies under age 2 can only learn words for things they are interested in or that are linked to their daily life, such as "car," "bath" and "dog."

"It appears that young children may understand word use more flexibly than scientists and parents have previously thought," says researcher Graham Schafer, D-Phil, of the University of Reading (search) in England, in a news release.

The study showed that a group of 9-month-olds was able to learn a new group of words taught to them by their parents using picture cards and then correctly identify them three months later.

The results of the study appear in the January/February issue of Child Development.

Baby's First Words Come Sooner

In the study, researchers asked the parents of 52 9-month-olds to use 12 board books and a set of 48 picture cards with images of common objects, such as keys, apples, fish and chairs, in simple games with their children. They played the games four times a week for up to 10 minutes a session.

The games were based on the kind of routines that the parents already had with their children, including naming and pointing and finding the one that didn't belong. No reading was required.

Three months later, the children were tested on their ability to recognize the words they had been taught. In the test, a researcher showed the child two pictures and asked him to look at the one associated with the word. For example, the researcher might say "Fish, fish, look at the fish."

Then the researcher noted if the child looked at the right picture. The results showed that children who had the training looked at the correct picture, but a group of untrained children who served as a comparison group did not.

"This was notable because in the test, the pictures, voices, and the context were all new to the children," says Schafer. "So we can conclude that the children who had taken part in the games with their parents had learned these particular words, and not in a way linked to a special context."

Schafer says the message for parents is that babies may never be "too young" to learn new words, and that parents talk to their children as much as possible.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Schafer, G. Child Development, January/February 2005; vol 6. News release, Society for Research in Child Development.