Developing pre-verbal skills in babies and toddlers.
By certified practicing speech-language pathologist at Nurture Family Allied Health Centre, Meghan Walsh.
Your child’s first word is a long-anticipated milestone. Mummy dreams of that first little “Mamama” while Dad is secretly coaching “Dadad” at every opportunity like it’s a competitive sport. For me, it was “duck” – baby wins. Typically this momentous occasion can happen anywhere from 6 to 12 months of age, and while this all seems to happen as if by magic, your child has actually been acquiring important pre-verbal skills to make them communication ready.
Everything we do is an opportunity for babies and toddlers to learn to communicate. Infants are communicating their needs non-verbally from birth (crying, grunting), but need to master certain skills to be successful talkers when the time comes.
Eye Contact: It seems obvious, but learning to talk is a social experience that children learn best from other people. Be happy to spend some quality time gazing into your babies’ faces – you are their first and best toy. Exposure to other faces and talkers is just as important, so don’t be afraid to palm the kids off to Grandma while you have a coffee. Children learn speech and language from exposure to multiple, “live” communicators, not faces on screens, so put the Baby Einstein videos away and make faces, sing songs and talk to your infants instead.
Attention: Being able to focus on objects, people, sounds and experiences around them such as gazing at objects, turning towards interesting sounds or movements. Your baby should be able to maintain interest for an increasing amount of time as they get older.
Object Permanence: This is a cognitive stage of development (typically around 8 months) where your baby begins to realise that an object still exists even if they can’t see it. They are able to form a picture of the object in their mind and are therefore have the ability to label things they cannot see. This also may explain why infants can be so clingy. Encourage the development of object permanence with a game of “peekaboo.”
Cause and Effect: This is when your child realises that actions have reactions – I push the lever and the ball falls down or I drop my spoon on the floor and Mummy picks it up…again. More importantly, I say a word and everyone responds to me. A good cause and effect toy such as car/ball ramps, wind-up toys, jack-in-the-box or musical toys are great for this stage.
Means to an end: This shows your child is developing intention – undertaking an action with a desired outcome in mind, eg. pulling a toy on a string to make it vibrate.
Intent: This is your child having a reason to communicate. Requesting objects, pointing out events or objects, greetings, acknowledging, requesting attention, protesting. If your child has a need or desire to communicate, they are more likely to do it. You can increase your child’s need to communicate by not anticipating every need, every time, but allowing them time to make a request.
Imitation: Motor imitation will often come first such as baby clapping when you clap or copying your facial expression. When you add sounds to your gestures, your baby learns to imitate sounds such as “growling” like a tiger, or waving “bye-bye”. Vocal and motor imitation often go hand in hand at this pre-verbal stage, which is why baby signing can be a great way to help your child learn to talk. Eventually sound imitation leads to word imitation.
Play: Play is your child’s way of learning about the world around them. Exploring objects through sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell is necessary for them to be able to assign a ‘label’ to that object. Pretend play and role playing is your child’s way of learning symbolism and social communication.
Turn-taking: This a fundamental skill of all human interaction, and like imitation, starts off as a motor activity (such as passing a ball back and forth) and becomes verbal activity (conversation). Your child soon learns when their communication partner is expecting a response. You can encourage this by being a good listener and showing your child that you are expectantly listening for them to reply to you and responding to their noises with facial expressions like you’re following their conversation.
All going well, you are likely to see your little ones learning new words every week up until they are combining two words together from 18-24 months, followed by literal a language explosion! If you feel like your child is not reaching these important language milestones, don’t “wait and see.” Seeking advice from a speech-language pathologist can help set you all on the right path to communication success.
If you would like more information regarding early speech and lan
guage development you can download the Communications Milestones Kit from the Speech Pathology Australia website, or call Nurture Family Allied Health Centre on 477 22 555 for an appointment.