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July 29, 2012 / the speech monster

Facilitating communication in infants

As promised, here is one of a few posts I wrote in the last few months that’s related to speech and language development in infants.

Hubby talking to baby B who was only about 8 weeks in this photo.

Language development starts from the minute the child is born. As a Speechie mom, I fully understand the importance of parent-child communication and that believe it or not, there is a variety of language facilitation strategies available for infants! I’m also constantly thinking about ways to interact with my child. It’s fascinating that we are all born with an innate desire to communicate and through interactions we realize how powerful communication abilities can be. Even the kids with autism who are often misunderstood as introverted or hermits (they want to communicate and interact with others; they just don’t know HOW).

When B was born, he “spoke” to us mostly with eye gazes and cries. Then he started grinning, although not in response to anything. Slowly he learned that a grin or laugh would get him a lot of attention and therefore gave us more and more of these magical moments. We also learned that B had different cries tagged to various needs: hunger vs discomfort vs weariness. In the last few weeks he also started cooing and gurgling, doing it mostly when he was happy and in a playful mood.

How should parents react to these communicative intents to encourage more vocalizations? I strongly believe for the first years that the more the child is able to vocalize, the better. He is exploring his vocal range and different ways to interact. Hopefully, the more he experiences these movements, the quicker he will pick up speech sounds and start adding meaning to these sounds, and start stringing words together to make sentences. This is the basis of language acquisition, and we know that language knowledge is the foundation to reading and writing.

So, how can we facilitate communication in infants to get them “talking?”

Imitate your infant’s vocalizations: when your baby coos, try to respond with either human speech, for example, “Oh I like the way you’re cooing/talking.” “Hello, good morning!” or an imitated coo. If baby gurgles, do it back. Try turn-taking: coo after your baby’s done cooing. It’s like you two are having a conversation, infant style. This can be an excellent game to “teach” or reinforce conversational turn-taking. A lot of infants/kids learn this naturally by osmosis, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce this skill.

  Self-talk: when you are busy doing household chores while your baby is in his play gym or bouncer, looking/observing your movements, take that opportunity to talk to him and explain to him what you are doing. This will expose him to different words in context. E.g., when you’re cooking, you can say, “Oh, look, I’m chopping up the veggies, I have green broccoli, spinach, …” This might take a bit of effort initially as you have to multitask but just imagine talking to a friend while you’re cooking: it’s essentially a similar set of skills. And God has blessed us women with the ability to multitask!

– Provide good eye contact and respond to your infant’s facial cues like smiles/cries: when you are talking to your baby (unless you are doing the “self talk” that was described above, try to give him your fullest attention to reinforce listening and speaking skills.

– Be more animated in your speech but avoid motherese talk or baby talk (like shortening words, e.g., saying “nana” for “banana”): this is hard avoid because we’re used to changing the pitch and even nasality of our voices when speaking to a baby and, thinking that they cannot understand or hear words that are more than two syllables, keep shortening words (e.g., “nana” for “banana”). Shortening words is not ideal for language development because you are not modeling the best speech for your child.

Try to speak to your baby in a slower rate, and with a more exaggerated prosody. Also, producing lisps and saying “wabbit” for “rabbit” are incredibly cute but again are not good speech models so try to avoid them. We always talk about modeling good behavior, so why not do it also with speech. Even if your child says a word incorrectly, do not imitate them. Rather, simply say the correct version of the word and try to have them say the correct form back to you.

– Read to your infant: it’s never too young to start reading. Initially, your baby’s attention span will be way too short to get through one or two pages. Also, he would not have developed the ability to see different colors, so books might not as engaging as they could be. However, once he can discriminate colors he will get more in them. Use your finger to track words on the page and point to different words and pictures on the page as you talk about them.

Reading to your child also exposes him to a different tone of voice as we tend to speak slightly differently when reading vs conversing. He also gets to hear different types of words that you may or may not use in your daily conversations.

– Sing to your infant: Many children’s songs contain rhyme and are therefore excellent for exposing them at an early age to basic phonological awareness skills (which are the precursors to reading and writing abilities). Songs also help develop a sense of rhythm in children and a different way to verbalize language as compared to reading and conversing. Songs also contain repetition, which are great for infants and young children. Repetition creates predictability, something infants and children enjoy. This also allows the infants/children to follow along the songs. Try to sing to your child at least once a day and use the same few songs for a few days before adding another one to the repertoire.

Hubby reading to an attentive B

How else do you communicate or facilitate learning in your infant?? What are your thoughts on what I’ve been doing so far?

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