Baby's first word has long been parents' Holy Grail. The relief of knowing you are able to communicate with your child is the hallmark of this major milestone, so it's no wonder this moment can't come fast enough for most moms and dads.
The wait, however, can be excruciating. And when your friends' babies' babbles give way to actual words, you may worry that your quiet child will never speak up.
One, “Oh, he's not talking yet?” uttered by an otherwise well-intentioned person can feel downright devastating.
The bottom-line truth is that language development, just like everything else, is an individual endeavor. Each child is unique, and it takes time to acquire skills, to learn, to grow. And while you can't necessarily rush what will happen in its own right time, you can take steps to give your child a leg-up on language development from infancy through early childhood.
Bring on the baby talk (under two years old)
From infancy through to age two, you can lay the groundwork using simple interactions as effective building blocks of language.
“Read” to your child
Many books for babies don't even have words, so all that you need to do is just talk about the story as you see it. Describe the pictures and engage your baby with expressive questions like, “What is this?”
Start with sound
One easy way to expose your baby to language is to make animal noises. Not only will your baby learn which animal says “moo” and which says, “meow,” but he or she will get a good handle on one of the most basic components of language: sound.
Let your toddler take the floor (ages two- to four-years-old)
Between the ages of two- and four-years-old, language development tends to really take off. Now is the time to encourage not just one-way communication, but actual dialog.
Ask meaningful questions
Ask your toddler questions that include making choices, such as: “Do you want a ham sandwich or a cheese sandwich?” This promotes a higher-level response.
Don't just say it, sing it
When you sing songs, nursery rhymes, ballads and cartoon songs with your toddler, you're also supporting speech development.
Use toys as a teachable moment
Pick up your child's favorite toys and put them on the floor, then have her or him pick up each one and tell you what it is and what it does, for example, “This is a car, it drives on the road.”
Elevate language to the next level (ages four- to five-years-old and up)
Take out your child's favorite toys, and have him or she tell you a story about what is happening. Let it be as wild and crazy as your child wants, as the goal is language development (not a doctoral thesis).
Explore everyday items
Some of the most familiar objects, like pictures on a mantle, the dog's playthings or food you're serving for lunch can stimulate conversation. Make time to explore with your child what he or she sees, what the item is used for, what color(s) is it, and memories she or he has about each item.
Make emotional connections
Ask your child how she or he feels in a given situation. You're likely to hear a mouthful 🙂
One important note: Talk to your baby or toddler how you would talk to anyone else – like an adult. While using a little “baby talk” here and there is fine, the goal is to familiarize your child with proper language. So even when you use a word in baby talk, follow it up with the proper word(s).
A note about late language or speech development….
If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing delayed speech or language development, talk to your doctor. In general, some signs that may justify a conversation with your child's physician include:
By 12 months: Not using gestures like pointing or shaking his or her head.
By 18 months: Unable to comply with simple directives like, “Don't touch!”
By two-years-old: Has difficulty imitating sounds and does not play “pretend” with toys (i.e. feeding a doll, revving up a car).
By three- or four-years-old: Doesn't ask questions or know how to use phrases.