Early Communication and Language

Communication isn’t just talking. From birth, your baby is learning how to let you know what he or she needs. Long before he or she says a word, your baby communicates needs, thoughts and feelings. While we can’t always know what a baby is trying to say, we do know that early communication skills develop much better when a child feels understood, hears words, and interacts with caregivers and others. Having “conversations” from the start forms a foundation for vocabulary and social skills that enhances success in school and life.

How do typically developing children express themselves in the first five years? And how can we help children develop great communication skills?

Ages 0 – 1: From birth, infants use facial expressions, sounds, gaze and gestures with their bodies to let you know how they feel. Different cries mean different things, from hunger to pain to being afraid. In the first three months, babies begin to smile and turn toward the sound of your voice, and they are calmed by a soothing tone. At this time, babies use their whole bodies to express feelings, from wriggling with happiness to arching away when upset. In the first six months, their understanding of words and ability to communicate through gurgles, coos and repeat sounds like “baba” increases. To better understand your infant, pay close attention to him or her; soon, you will be able to read the cues of your baby’s cries, movements and babbling. To help your baby feel understood and loved and build communication skills, try speaking, reading and singing often to him or her, beginning at birth.

Ages 1 – 3: Toddlers are very expressive, using gaze, gestures, body language and facial expressions to communicate everything from delight to disgust. Studying your child’s nonverbal responses can help you “read” his or her feelings to understand what’s needed. At this age, when a child has a “meltdown,” it is often because he or she does not have the words to express feelings or the ability to calm down independently. To help children feel more in control during a tantrum, stay calm and identify feelings and validate with words: “I bet you feel angry because we have to go now.” While most babies say their first words at around 12 months, they understand many more, and their vocabularies and comprehension builds quickly. Soon, they begin to understand and answer questions with pointing or gestures (“Where is your nose?”) and can follow simple suggestions, such as clapping hands or rolling a ball; by 24 months, many toddlers can ask two-word questions (“Where kitty?”) or make statements (“Go park.”). Between ages 2 and 3, vocabulary and understanding grows, verbal communication becomes more complex (sentences of three or more words) and children become more intentional with nonverbal communication (such as making silly or angry faces or crossing arms). Giving a child choices, from books you read together to what to wear, can help him or her feel empowered.

Ages 4 – 5: As vocabulary grows daily, preschoolers communicate complex ideas through longer sentences. At this time, you can help him or her with nonverbal communication by modeling and discussing the importance of tone of voice (if you speak very loudly, you might sound angry even if you are not), facial expressions that match what you want to communicate, personal space and making eye contact. Preschoolers love playing pretend and acting; to increase understanding of body language, play the Mood Game. Without using any words, express a mood and see if your child can guess it. Take turns and discuss the different ways body language, facial expressions, and movements communicate feelings and thoughts. To practice intentional communication, play a game speaking the same sentence in many different ways, from excitedly to sadly to happily ó to any other way you and your child can think of!

Hearing Help

Identifying and treating hearing issues early is important to your child’s current and future learning. If your child is not speaking words clearly by age 3, or you have any concerns about his or her hearing or understanding words before then, talk to your child’s pediatrician.

Nonverbal Communication for Fun

Create a special signal with your child to show him or her that she is doing a good job, whether it is being kind to another child or waiting patiently. A subtle touch to your forehead ó or more obvious A-OK or thumbs-up sign ó is a nice shared code that lets a child know you are noticing what they do and approve of it.

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