It starts one day with an adorable babble. Then the next, you’re pretty sure you heard your baby say “Dada.” And next thing you know, your child is talking nonstop about video games, telling Knock Knock Jokes, and reading to you from their favorite book. The first three years of a child’s life is the most intensive period for developing speech and language skills. Their incredible brains are primed for absorbing language!
Speech and language, and really, all learning, develop in the context of relationship, and it starts from birth. You play an important role in stimulating your child’s communication and language development.
The period of 12-24 months is an exciting time to watch your toddler’s language development blossom. Many children follow a predictable timetable for meeting speech and language milestones. If you have concerns about how your child’s language skills are developing, talk to your pediatrician.
Communication skills defined:
Speech refers to the ability to talk; to use your mouth, jaw, tongue, and vocal cords to create sounds and words.
Language more generally refers to a set of shared rules that people follow to express themselves verbally, in writing, by signing, or making gestures.
Milestones by age:
- Stream of babble with the rhythm of speech
- Can usually say a few words, such as “mom,” “da” or “no”
- Connects names with the right person
- Uses pointing and gesturing to communicate
- Responds to one-step instructions, such as “Give the ball to me.”
- Looks when you point at something
- Plays game with you, such as “peek-a-boo”
- Babble contains more recognizable words
- Uses clear gestures
- Understands more than 24 words
- Uses 6 to 12 words
- Names certain objects and special people
- Repeats last words of parents’ sentences
- Uses pointing and sounds to express their needs
- Understands up to 100 words
- Shakes head “no”
- Starts to combine words — “More milk,” “Hi mom”
- Understands up to 300 words
- Responds to complex instructions
- Follows two-part instructions, such as “Get your train and put it on the table.”
- Starts to talk about things that are not in the room
- Begins to ask “why?”
By three-years old, you will be able to hold a conversation with your toddler, and marvel at how they are able to string multiple words together.
Ways to boost your child’s speech and language skills
At birth, the eye contact and eye gazing you do with your baby will create brain connections for conversation. When your baby makes a sound, make the sound back, and wait for a response, in a kind of a conversation. When you narrate your day, constantly or periodically talk to your baby about what is happening, you are supporting her receptive language. When you give your baby words for how she is feeling, she is developing an emotional vocabulary and better able to access her learning brain. She begins to understand that all emotions are okay, and as she gets her needs met, she is okay. She can eventually learn to use words or signs to get her needs met, and you will see less biting, hitting, and whining when she is a toddler.
You don’t need to read your infant classic literature or 19th century poetry to encourage their language development, although of course you can if you prefer. The rhythm of the language, the sounds they hear, and the patterns of words when you read to your baby plant the seeds and make brain connections for the language you speak.
There are many simple, everyday ways to give your child a leg up when it comes to language and speech:
- Talk talk talk! As you go through your day, talk about what you are doing. It may seem silly to explain step-by-step how to wash the dishes, but it will help to eventually build your child’s vocabulary.
- Use real words for objects. Yes, it can be fun to give blankets, bottles, even your pets silly names. But using the proper word for things will help your child in the long run.
- Read together often. Even young infants can benefit from looking at board books. Mouthing and chewing on board books, figuring out how they open and close, and what it feels like to have a book in their hands are all pre-reading skills! Use this time to enjoy being with your baby, and don’t worry about reading all the words. You can follow their lead, point to and name pictures, and make up your own story. At first, their attention span might limit how much you read together, but overtime your child will be able to sit with you for longer periods of time.
- Don’t be afraid to use “parentese.” Parentese is the use of high-pitched tone, combined with simple sentences, and drawn-out vowels (AEIOU). For example,”Looook, kittyyyyyy!” Research tells us that babies tend to prefer Parentese over normal adult speak.
- Give words to your child’s gestures. When your child points, say “Do you want that toy over there?” Or when they gesture to be picked up, you could say: “Do you want to be picked up?”
- Sing to and with your baby and toddler. When you sing, the language is slowed down, and the child can process the sounds of the words more easily. This is another way to enjoy being together, because remember, they learn in the context of your relationship!
Watching your child develop their speech and language skills is one of the most exciting parts of parenting. Don’t stress if your child doesn’t reach these milestones right on target, and if you do have concerns about how your child’s skills are developing, talk to your child’s pediatrician at their next wellness checkup.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com).