“Goo goo, gaa gaa…” Do you find yourself lapsing into this sort of nonsense talk with your baby, then feeling guilty because of all those books you’ve read telling you to talk in proper sentences? Relax because talking with your baby should include silliness, rhymes, pulling faces and sticking out your tongue, in fact all the funny things that seem to come naturally, as well as simple stories and naming things.
Most importantly, don’t wait until your baby says that first word before you talk to him or her, because the first year of your baby’s life is just about the most important of all as far as speech and language development is concerned. By the time your baby is nine months old, at the time when health visitors often carry out hearing tests, he or she will already show the signs that good language skills are developing. These signs include an interest in noises, turning towards even quiet sounds, lots of apparently meaningless ‘babbling’ sounds of the ‘b-b-b-b’ and ‘d-d-d-d’ variety, and making eye contact with you when you are talking or playing together.
Your baby won’t be saying words yet, but will have the foundations of speech already laid down. Don’t forget that good language skills are closely linked with good reading later on. It may seem a long time until school, or even pre-school, but your baby is already making a start in literacy.
So how can you make sure your baby has a head start in speech development, without pressuring or hot-housing him or her? It’s easy – just do what comes naturally. Take your cues from your baby.
You can look your baby in the eye and smile right from day one. This is communication – the beginnings of speech. It won’t be long before your baby smiles right back at you, and when he does, just do it again. Talk to him at the same time. He’ll love to hear you.
When you cuddle your baby and look into his or her eyes, as well as talking you’ll find yourself making face and mouth movements, from smiles to puckering up like a kiss. Within a very few weeks, your baby will copy these movements, and this will be good practice for speech sounds later on.
Add some silly sounds to your mouth movements, and your baby will copy these. By about six months he or she will be able to put several sounds together, although the sound combinations won’t be words yet. The easiest sounds for a baby to copy are the ones made at the front of the mouth, where it’s easy to see the movement. That’s why ‘b-b-b-b’ is a favourite. Incidentally, it’s also probably why ‘baby’ is the name for a baby.
Watch your baby turning to sounds around. Babies can hear very quiet sounds, but cannot cope with too much noise. If your baby is irritable, it may because of too much noise stimulation, so it’s a good idea to turn radios and TVs off for a while every day, to give your baby a chance to hear other, less strident noises. The best noise of all, of course, is the sound of your voice as you play and talk with your baby.
Your baby will look at the things that are interesting to a baby. Take an interest in those things yourself, and talk about them. If it’s the cat meowing, you could try copying the noise yourself, or if it’s a car arriving, why not ‘brrm-brrm’ together with your baby?
You may think you’re the worst singer in the world, or you may fancy yourself an opera singer that the world has missed out on. Either way, your baby will just love your singing, so don’t be shy. In fact, singing to your baby even before birth has been shown to have a soothing effect.
If you don’t know the words to any songs, try those nursery rhymes you thought you had forgotten. Persuade a grandparent to buy a beautiful nursery rhyme book, and find your old favourites along with some new ones. If you don’t know the tunes, make some up, and if you really can’t bear to sing, just say the rhymes out loud in a rhythmic way. Your baby will be learning many of the important features of words, such as sounds at the beginning and end of words, and how to make rhymes. One day, this will help no end with spelling tests.
Babies love to hear and see the same things over and over again, and thrive on simple routines. Don’t be afraid to carry out the same activities and use the same words many times. Hearing ‘Dinner-time. Here it comes!’ for every mouthful of food will help a growing baby to understand what ‘dinner’ means. It’s a fact that good speech follows on from understanding, and that a baby needs to hear a word dozens of times before he can use it himself.
Doing what comes naturally
All these activities are the things we do with our babies without thinking. Don’t let anyone tell you that you will stop your baby from learning to talk properly if you use baby language and nonsense. Let your baby’s reactions show you what he enjoys, and carry on doing those things. Your child will soon be listening to, understanding and enjoying language, and will be well on the way to talking himself.
If you feel your baby is not very interested in noises, or doesn’t like to make eye-contact, or is very silent, then do discuss this with your health visitor, or ring your local NHS speech therapy department, or ask an independent speech and language therapist for an assessment. They should be able to give you advice on more ways to help your baby get ready to talk.
Above all, remember that it’s easy to help your baby develop good speech skills that will benefit him for the rest of his life, and what’s more – it’s fun.
By Frances Evesham, speech and language therapist. First published on UK Parents in 2000.