Gwen Dewar over at the Urban Child Institute has a terrific article on “6 Tips for Boosting Your Baby’s Language Skills.” Read her whole article here.
Here’s a summary of her tips with my own thoughts:
1. Take a cue from your baby’s curiosity.
When babies reach for or gaze at objects they are interested in, we can view these as our cues to engage them in conversation. We can name the objects or just talk to them about what they’re looking at. When we’re playing with or reading to our child, we can pause and allow them to lead us in conversation in this way. When their curiosity drives our time with them, they not only develop increased language skills, but she becomes more comfortable exploring the unfamiliar.
2. Tune into your baby.
Think about how you interact with adults, the way you affirm their presence in often subtle ways. We respond to their questions, acknowledge their entry into the room, etc. Dewar says, “Babies – even babies who can’t speak yet – look for the same message from us. They want to know that we will respond contingently to their signals, and when they perceive us doing it, their brains seem to flip a switch. Studies indicate that babies learn language faster when we talk with them, not at them.” I think this is related to her first tip. Being attuned to our child includes noticing the things she cares about, even when she’s a little baby. This early attunement creates a strong foundation for great communication throughout the toddler and preschool years when our kids are gaining skills in communicating their needs, feelings, and interests.
3. Be flexible and spontaneous.
Dewar says, “It’s easy to get bogged down with routines, but when it comes to family communication, we need to be ready to improvise. For instance, if your toddler interrupts your bedtime story because he wants to talk about the chair that Goldilocks smashed, go with it. Insisting that you stick to the narrative isn’t going to help your child build better verbal skills. On the contrary, it’s likely that kids learn more when the conversation veers off-text. Besides, forced bedtime reading is neither fun nor soothing. Your child might end up having more trouble falling asleep!”
This is a great tip! We grown-ups get fixated on doing things the right way, but following our child’s lead on occasion not only provides opportunities for communication, but allows our child to feel respected and affirmed.
4. Supplement verbal messages with expressive emotions, gestures, and movements.
There’s a reason adults tend to act a little goofier when they are interacting with a baby! Babies actually learn better when we couple our words with exaggerated gestures and a heightened tone of voice. When we show our baby a stuffed monkey, we can name the object “monkey”, but we can also make funny monkey sounds and animate the stuffed object for our baby. Dewar explains, “When babies are learning to talk, they don’t just listen to our words. They also notice our tone of voice, and pay particular attention when we speak with exaggerated emotion: It helps them figure out our meaning.”
5. Don’t worry about being perfect.
You don’t have to be a seasoned public speaker or possess perfect grammar to pass on strong language skills to your baby. Dewar suggests that when parents stumble to find the right word, it actually engages the child even more — they pay even more attention to what we are saying.
6. Shake things up.
Dewar encourages us to speak to our babies and young children like we would with anybody else. She cautions that if we dumb down our conversations with our babies too much, they will have access to a more limited vocabulary. It’s okay to simplify things when you are actually naming objects for your baby, but otherwise feel free to speak to them with words far more sophisticated than you imagine they can comprehend. One great tip Dewar offers is to repeat back what our child says, but expand upon it with more words. So if your child says, “FIRE TRUCK!,” you can talk about how loud it is or what it looks like.
I can’t help but notice that all these tips are easier to implement when we are using the parenting tools associated with attachment parenting — particularly babywearing, breastfeeding, and sleeping near your baby. These tools help us keep our baby calm and close by, and they help us tune into our babies more easily. Attached, responsive parents also enhance their child’s language development by giving her confidence that she will actually be heard. I think a baby’s cries are really her first words. When she is ignored or made to cry increasingly fretfully in order to get a response, then she’s not spending that time listening to and learning about other sounds in her world.