By Laura Davies, Speech and Language Therapist and mum
The amount that your baby learns in their first year of life is astounding. Babies have a number of ways of communicating to you. This ability to get their message across is one of the many foundation communication skills they need before they can start to learn to use words during their second year.
So what can parents do over their baby’s first year to help them build these crucial early communication skills?
1 Talk to your baby from day one. They will already know your voice from being in the womb, and will be calmed by hearing a familiar voice. Right from the start, babies are listening to others talking and are starting to unpick meaning- to work out where the boundaries between words lie, and what certain words refer to (e.g., if they remember that they hear the word ‘cat’ every time they see a fluffy animal, this helps them to learn what this word means). It doesn’t matter what you say to your baby- you can tell them about what you are doing, or what you can see- they will benefit just from hearing your voice.
2 As they get a bit older and start to focus in on the meaning of words, comment on what your baby is looking at or doing. If they are banging a block on the floor, you could comment by saying ‘bang bang, bang the brick.’ If your little one has told you something with their cries or facial expressions, you can ‘translate’ their message back to them (‘you’re hungry, you want milk.’)
3 When talking about what your baby is focussed on, talk to them using simple language, repeating the same words several times. For example, if they are staring at a dog, you could say ‘nice dog, he’s a black dog, let’s pat the dog.’ They are then more likely to pick up on the word ‘dog’ and link it to what they are seeing.
4 When your baby makes sounds, copy these back to them. Babies love to hear adults making the same noises as them, and if they then respond again, this is practice for taking turns in an early ‘conversation.’ It also reinforces the idea that they can communicate with others using their voice.
5 Read to your baby, even when they are newborn. Newborn babies will enjoy simple pictures such as black and white images, and will especially like listening to rhyming books or those with a repetitive rhythm. Older babies will also enjoy books with repetitive rhythms and rhymes (such as the ‘Acorn Wood’ series), or those with things for them to feel (such as the ‘That’s not my…’ books). Reading has lots of benefits, including exposing your child to ideas they may not come across in daily life (such as what an elephant is), helping them to understand what pictures represent, and as a foundation to early literacy skills (such as knowing which way up to hold a book and how to turn the pages).
6 Finally, sing to your baby from day one too! Babies love to listen to voices as they are naturally predisposed to tune into the rhythms and tones of our speech- singing particularly attracts their attention as it highlights these qualities. Songs such as nursery rhymes which are familiar and the same every time help them to learn to anticipate what is coming (such as the ‘tickle you under there!’ in ‘round and round the garden’) and is an early way of teaching them to be part of a game, such as in ‘row row your boat.’ You can also make up songs to signal to small babies what is going to happen next, such as a ‘nappy changing song’ or a ‘wash your hands song’ (pick a familiar nursery rhyme tune and make up some lyrics). Don’t worry about not singing in tune or having a good voice, your baby will love to listen to you anyway!
At Chatterbabies, we use activities and strategies like the ones above, along with many more such as puppets, pretend play, messy play and games to help your baby’s language develop in a fun and relaxed environment. We also give parents information about how their baby learns language and ideas for home on how to nurture this. Alongside all the activities we use baby signing, to help your little one learn signs which they can use while their words are developing (babies often to use learn signs before words, as their hands are easier to control than their mouths!) Classes are small, with no more than eight babies per class to help minimise distractions, and classes are run according to age, so that all the activities can be tailored exactly to the skills your baby will be developing at each stage.
Laura Davies is speech and language therapist, mum and runs Chatterbabies language classes for little ones. Her Oxford classes use fun activities such as songs, signing, sensory play, books and puppets to help develop all aspects of your child’s communication. Find out more on the Chatterbabies website.