Babies and children learn best through play and positive back-and-forth interactions. Play helps your child practice new skills, learn about the world around them, develop social skills and problem-solving. Play is also important for your child’s mental health and well-being.
When we think of play, we often think of toys – but play comes in many forms! Some other examples of play include: People Games (example: Peek-a-Boo), building songs and fun into daily routines (examples: brushing teeth, getting dressed) and sharing books.
When you are playing with your child – watch what they are doing so you can follow their lead. Following your child’s lead shows your child that you are interested in what they are doing. Following your child’s lead also helps you see and respond to their cues. When you respond to your child’s cues teaches them that their actions and sounds have an effect on the world. This helps them develop their language skills and builds a strong parent-child relationship.
Before they can communicate using words, babies have to understand the meaning of words. This does not happen automatically – they need caring adults to help them, by using lots of different words and phrases.
Babies and children need their parents to use words that match what is happening around them. This helps them understand the meaning of those words. Repetition is very helpful – a child needs to hear/see a new word many times before they learn what it means.
In the picture below, the caregiver is using spoken words to describe what a toy is doing. This helps the child learn what those words mean.
Babies and children express their needs in different ways, at different ages.
Newborn babies and infants communicate mostly by crying, grunting, laughing, smiling and making different facial expressions. They need their caregivers to interpret their needs.
Young babies use actions and gestures to make things happen. For example, a baby may reach their arms up to be picked up. Gestures are a helpful building block to developing language. It is important to interpret and respond to these actions so that your child keeps communicating.
Babies need lots of practice when they are learning to communicate – one way they practice is by babbling. Babies learning spoken language will babble by making different sounds with their voice and mouth (examples: “ma” “baba” “badada”). Babies learning sign language will babble by making different hand shapes and movements (example: open/close hand).
A baby’s first words are not always the same as adult words. Babies and young toddlers may shorten long words (example: “nana” for “banana”) or use sounds that are easier to say (example: “ta” for “cup”). They may also use their first words in different ways than an adult. For example, a baby may use the word “doggy” when talking about different animals, until they learn the words for other animals.
You will know if a sound or action is a word if your child uses it often, to express or request the same things.
By about two years of age, toddlers will begin to combine words into short phrases. This helps them communicate bigger ideas. Before they can do this, your child needs to know lots of different words – including action words (example: go, eat), location words (example: up, in) and describing words (example: big, happy).
When you use longer phrases in your language, your child will learn more words and sentence structure. This will help them make longer phrases and sentences.
Babies learning a spoken language begin practicing speech sounds (examples: “puh”, “duh”, “ah”, “ee”) when they babble. They begin to put these sounds into words as they get older.
Some sounds are easier for babies and young children to say, such as vowel sounds (examples: “ee” “ah” “oo”) and sounds made with the lips (examples: mmmm, puh, buh). In most languages, these sounds are the first to develop.
Certain speech sound errors are common in early development. For example, in English, it is common for young children to say “tat” for “cat” or “top” for “stop”. If your child is having trouble saying certain sounds in words, you can help them by repeating the word with the correct sounds.
When your child is three years old, you should be able to understand most of what they say. Research shows that 90% of children learn all speech sounds in their first language by the age of six.
Sharing books and stories with your baby and toddler is one way you can help your child develop communication skills. Early experiences with books helps your child with their future reading and writing skills.
Many children learn to use more than one language. For children to learn multiple languages, they need lots of exposure and practice using the languages in everyday activities. Children learn all languages best through fun, meaningful and loving back-and-forth interaction. Learning more than one language will not cause or contribute to a language delay.