It may sound like babble, but as Alice Cranfield writes, you can have a big role in helping your child get from “goo-goo” to “Grandma”.
The first word to come out of our daughter’s mouth was "Dada". She said it clear as day while looking directly at her Dad. “Yes! 'Dada' –that’s right – it’s 'Dada'!”, I screamed with excitement.
The path to that first word didn’t happen by chance –it took concerted effort. We’d spent months waving goodbye to Dada when he left for work and welcoming Dada home at the end of each day too.
Research shows we begin learning about communication in the womb. Amazingly, a foetus begins to recognise its mother’s voice between 24 to 27 weeks gestation, and that recognition is so strong that, once baby is born, she both recognises and prefers her mother’s voice to others.
Nicola Lathey is a London-based speech therapist and author of the book, Small Talk. In it she suggests mothers speak to their unborn child daily. Crazy as it may sound, she insists this can make a big difference to our children’s future language development. “The earlier we talk to babies, the more in tune with our language they’ll be and the quicker they’ll learn it”, she writes.
Talk to me
Once a child is born, their earliest forms of communication begin. While crying is hard to listen to, this is our child’s way of saying “I’m tired” or “I need a new nappy”.
As you begin speaking with your baby, it’s likely you’ll develop a distinct tone. Known as Motherese, this way of talking is characterised by its slow rate, short sentence structure, high pitch and exaggerated pronunciation. Motherese is heard across all languages, and researchers have found that infants spoken to in Motherese learnt words more quickly than infants spoken to in normal adult speech.
Before a baby can begin speaking, she must first develop a range of pre-verbal skills. Auckland-based speech therapist, Rosemary Dwyer, says parents can expect to see these skills come into play from around six months old. Imitation of noises, being able to focus attention, understanding turn-taking, and the development of vocalisation are all pre-verbal skills that must first be mastered.
Rosemary encourages caregivers to put energy into teaching children turn-taking. “This can be as simple as you poking out your tongue, then your child will poke out their tongue. As they get older, you push a toy bus, then the child pushes the bus.”
By teaching turn-taking, we show our child that we are interested in what they have to say, and we give them an opportunity to respond.
Almost before you can blink, your baby is no longer a sleepy newborn and more of her personality has started to emerge – welcome to the babble phase!
Until now, your child will have been cooing and making vowel sounds, but at around six to twelve months, you’ll hear your child making noises using consonants. Nicola Lathey describes babble as “the sound made when the same consonant sound is added to a familiar vowel noise, for example, ‘ba ba’ or ‘goo goo’”.
Rosemary Dwyer says to have fun with this stage and encourage speech by throwing yourself into conversations with your child by imitating their noises. Don’t be afraid to “ga-ga” back excitedly with your child in the supermarket aisle!
Repetition is key at this stage. By repeating, we reinforce sounds and let our child know they are communicating successfully. While it may seem slightly tedious to read the same book over and over, babies enjoy the repetition and it helps build a baby’s neural pathways.
Anytime between 12 to 18 months, your child will start saying single words. From this point on, words will often begin flowing steadily.
As your child starts speaking words amongst the babble, puppets can be used as a fun learning tool. If you don’t have a puppet, a cuddly toy or sock can be used. Nicola Lathey suggests caregivers babble away with the puppet and baby. Remember to take turns, stopping to see if your baby will join in.
As your child begins to find her own voice, it’s important to remember to give her a reason to communicate. “As a parent you can anticipate your child’s every need before they arise”, says Rosemary Dwyer, “so, instead, start thinking about how to encourage more communication.”
She says this can be as simple as blocking out a small time in the day to focus on encouraging communication – during bath time or dinnertime, for example.
The development of listening is vital for a child to learn language. Plunket Clinical Advisor Allison Jamieson says hearing is very important for language development as a baby will not be able to learn words if she cannot hear. Because of this, Plunket Well Child checks investigate and continue to monitor a child’s hearing very early on.
Listening is different to hearing. We need to teach our children to listen, and this skill comes hand-in-hand with attention as a child learns to focus for longer periods of time. It’s important to make sure we have our child’s attention when we are communicating with them.
Nicola Lathey encourages parents to take time out to set the scene for listening by eliminating background noises like TV and radio when we are encouraging our child’s speech development.
Another strategy we can try is to give our child choices. While the concept seems basic, it can actually be hard to bring into our day-to-day routines. Choices can be as simple as offering a banana or a box of raisins at lunchtime, rather than simply passing a banana over.
Rosemary Dwyer says not to panic if you are not getting a lot of words from your baby at 12 to 18 months, as it will happen. “Children are just taking it in, and once they have taken it to the level they need, it will start coming out again."
As our child learns words and eventually begins forming sentences, it is important not to tell them they are wrong. If they see a dog and say “bog”, for example, don’t say “That is wrong”. Simply reinforce by saying “Yes, that’s right, it’s a dog. Look at the dog”. Don’t worry – they will get it.
As your child begins linking words and later forming sentences, their development is rapid. At 18 months, most children have about 20 to 50 words in their vocabulary, and by age two, they’ll know approximately 200 words!
It’s time to be more conscious than ever of what is coming out of your own mouth. We’ve all heard the stories of the child who proudly says “bloody hell” to an unsuspecting grandma. It is very important to remember children are like parrots, so if you don’t want words echoed, it’s time to start spelling out S-W-E-A-R words.
For children being brought up in bilingual homes, a whole new set of challenges arise. Nicola Lathey suggests parents try to keep languages separate at the early stages. For example, only speak one language at the table, not two. Read a book in one language, then re-read it in another.
French mother Camille Tone, of Auckland's Mangere Bridge, is raising her ten-month-old boy, Bastien, to speak English and French. Camille suggests parents take a natural approach to raising a bilingual child and try not to worry too much. She and her husband try to speak French at home and English when out.
When to be concerned
Plunket Clinical Advisor Allison Jamieson urges parents to speak with Plunket during their Well Child visit if they suspect something is hindering their child’s speech development. She says “the sooner Plunket can get onto an issue, the better, as a year with a hearing problem due to something like glue ear, for example, can hugely hinder a child’s development”.
When a child is presented at Rosemary Dwyer’s speech clinic, she looks at where a child’s development should be for their age, alongside their personal case history. During a typical speech therapy session, Rosemary will normally look at three things: articulation (can they make the sounds and do what they need to do?), phonology (how are the speech sounds stored in the brain – are they mixing it up in their minds?) and your child’s language development (how many words do they understand and what words and sentences can they use?).
Many of the issues can be rectified, and Rosemary says the biggest issue in hindering or progressing a child’s ability with sounds or language is how much work parents can do at home with their child. “We teach the parents so they can quite confidently go home and give it a really good go”, she says.
SHOW ME A SIGN
Many parents use baby signing once their child starts developing pre-verbal skills. Using visual cues alongside spoken language can help to reinforce your baby’s speech development. Chances are you’re instinctively teaching your child signs even if you haven’t made a conscious decision to do so. Waving goodbye is a basic example of baby signing.
Piha mother Kate Leighton started baby signing with her daughter, Mackenzie, at around six months old. Kate believes her daughter didn’t experience the frustration her family saw in other babies who tried to say something no one could understand. “I think baby signs are very empowering for the child as they have a way to communicate with their parents, who can then talk the same language back. I remember our daughter being so excited when she realised we understood her”, she says.
For more about baby sign language, visit babytalk.co.nz.
MASTER THE BABBLE
Here are some easy things you can incorporate into your daily life to encourage your baby's language:
● Sit with your child in front of a mirror and take turns making noises. Your baby will watch how you move your mouth and imitate what she sees.
● Talk to your baby throughout the day about what you're doing: "I'm going to put some nappy cream on now", "It's time to go for a walk, let's pop your hat on".
● Make a photo-book with pictures of family members and their names, and read it aloud, telling stories about each person.
● Visit speaktome.co.nz, a great resource about speech development and the norms for each stage.
Alice Cranfield lives in Auckland's Piha with her husband and their daughter. Alice is a freelance journalist with a passion for writing articles to help mums and dads, as she herself journeys through parenthood.