Speech, Language and Communication
A Guide to Creating a Connection with Your Child in the First Year
Written by Sholeh Shahinfar, MA, CCC-SLP, RYT
Published by AUTISM ADVOCATE Parenting Magazine
When you find out you are going to welcome a little human into your life, you are filled with so many emotions. Becoming a parent is such a big step. Your feelings of excitement, joy and love, however, are also mixed with worry and fear. As so often occurs with the rest of our lives, there will be lots of ups and downs when it comes to raising a child. As you reflect on your new role as a parent, your child’s entire life flashes before your eyes. You feel a deep desire to provide your little one with the best life possible.
Parenting doesn’t start when your baby is born; but the moment you realize you are welcoming a child into this world. The bond is instant! While we often think of communication as the exchange of words, nonverbal communication is just as effective at conveying our thoughts and feelings. In fact, the latter happens almost instantly out of the womb, and possibly even in the womb. Little growing babies communicate with us when they are in the belly! Science has shown that when little ones kick inside the belly, it may be linked to developing body awareness as well as to exploring their surroundings. Such movement in the belly is also related to sensory experiences happening both inside and outside the womb. Since these movements are expressing a need or a feeling, it is important to acknowledge this form of communication.
As a mother, there are several ways you can communicate with your baby while it is in the belly. Some nonverbal ways to communicate include the following:
TOUCH YOUR BELLY: babies feel emotions through the sense of touch
PLAY WITH YOUR BABY: respond to your baby’s kicks by touching the spot and waiting for a response
PRACTICE DEEP BELLY BREATHING EXERCISES: calming and centering yourself helps calm your baby
MOVE YOUR BODY: take walks, dance and engage in other forms of movement
Nonverbal communication when your little one is outside the belly takes many forms. The earliest signs of communication outside the womb are when your baby is crying, smiling, cooing and making eye contact with you. As your little one grows, these foundational skills for communication become stronger and more consistent. If you think that children who aren’t using words yet are not communicating, I can assure you that this is not the case.
There are so many resources available about child development that it can be quite overwhelming, especially for first-time parents, to take them all in. I find that many parents use milestones as a marker for success. While they can be a wonderful tool to help guide us in supporting our children, it is important not to let them define our children’s success.
As both a professional and a child communication expert, I tend to downplay developmental milestones. They can be a source of unnecessary stress and worry for many families. They take the focus off your child and place it on a version of success that has no clear meaning. Each child is different. Many factors come into play when assessing milestones and norms.
Milestones and norms are very useful as a means of helping us guide our little ones, but I do not let them dictate my child’s success nor my own success in helping children connect to their forms of expression.
The following month-by-month guide to your little one’s speech, language and communication development during the first year of life is intended as a tool to help guide you in empowering and elevating your little one’s expression.
With these guidelines in mind, let’s consider a defi nition for the terms speech, language and communication. While they are all very different, they are deeply connected.
SPEECH is made up of the sounds we use for talking, and the way in which we say those sounds and words. This includesfluency, volume, pitch, rate and intonation.
LANGUAGE involves understanding and using words and their meaning. It also encompasses understanding how words go together, putting words together using grammatical markers to make sentences, and grasping higher level skills, such as drawing inferences and making predictions.
COMMUNICATION: entails the nonverbal and verbal language skills used to share and exchange thoughts, feelings and ideas.
Children who have a speech, language, and/or communication delay will see a ripple eff ect in many other aspects of their lives. The following examples help illustrate this fact.
Joey is four years old. While at the playground, he sees other kids and invites them to play with him. Unfortunately, the other kids cannot understand what Joey is saying. Even though he repeats himself over and over, the other kids still can’t understand him. Joey begins to feel frustrated and walks away. Joey’s speech is not only affecting his verbal expression but also his behaviors, as well as his emotional and social development.
Sara is two years old and is in the kitchen with dad. Dad takes Sara over to the fridge and asks, “What should we eat for lunch today?” Sara replies by saying, “mmm… mmm” while pointing to the snack that she wants. Dad asks if she wants apples. Sara shakes her head and points again while saying, “mmm… mmm.” Dad asks if she wants juice. Once again, Sara shakes her head and continues to point. After a few more guesses by dad, Sara gets frustrated. She begins crying and starts hitting dad. Sara’s language is affecting her expression. She is becoming frustrated because she isn’t getting her wants and needs met. As a result, Sara begins to hit and cry, behaviors which can impact social and emotional development, as well as learning.
Zach is six years old. He is at school and the teacher says, “Okay kids, after you finish your art project, put it in your cubby, go sit down and take out your pencils and blocks for math.” Zach feels lost and confused. The teacher has just given the class direction that is long and complex, and he only got the first part. Zach looks around to copy his peers, but they are all at different stages in the direction. Zach decides to just sit down at his desk and not participate in the direction. The teacher thinks that he isn’t listening. Zach’s difficulty in comprehending or understanding this language has an impact on his learning, on his ability to participate with others, and on his confidence in himself. It impacts most areas of development.
These three examples clearly show how deeply connected speech, language and communication are to your little one’s well-being and development.
All of this information can help you create a language-rich environment for your child. Don’t wait until your little one is babbling to begin responding to his/her communication attempts. Start exposing your child to language right away. Below are my five favorite tips that you can start using right away, anytime and anywhere!
Infants begin coding and producing speech and language in their fi rst few months of life. Although they may not be producing sounds or words yet, they are still learning. Every moment is an opportunity for communication. The daily routines of our life, such as eating, sleeping, bathing and dressing, are all opportunities to interact and expose your child to language. Keep your language short and simple. For example, during bath time, name body parts and describe what you are doing: “wash hand,” “wash head,” “up” (while lifting arms up). You can also make various sound effects as you participate in water play. One simple routine can involve so much language! While you may feel silly at first, remember that you are chatting with a very important person who will engage in many more conversations with you later in life.
If your child gestures, coos, babbles, makes a sound or attempts to say a word, acknowledge it and mimic it. Children learn from watching. The more reciprocal imitation that occurs, the more your baby is learning the same muscle movements required for speech production. Vowel sounds are usually the first to develop. The bilabial sounds /p/, /b/, and /m/ are the earliest consonants that are acquired due to their visibility on the face. However, not all communication attempts will be verbal. If your child lifts his/her arms up, you can respond by saying, “up.” If he/she waves, you can respond by vocalizing, “bye-bye.” Acknowledge, respond and repeat!
Keep your own language short and simple by using one or two words to communicate. The more animated you are, the more you are gaining your child’s attention. During play, if your child reaches for a ball, say, “ball.” If your child throws the ball, pair language to this action by saying, “throw ball.” The more you label and describe, the more your child begins to develop connections, which leads to vocabulary building.
When you are communicating with children, get down to their eye level. It is a big world for such tiny babies, so engage with them on their level. Not only this show your child that you are there to speak with him/her, it also sets the early stages for pragmatic, or social, language skills, which includes joint attention and eye contact.
Early reading builds a habit of literacy later in life. Read out loud with your child, and read along together. Is your child following the direction of your gaze? Is your child looking at pictures you are labelling? This all leads to language acquisition within the first two years of life. When reading, make it engaging and interactive. You can target several skills with book reading, including early literacy skills, receptive language, and expressive language skills.
The earlier you expose your children to language and respond to their communication attempts, the more likely they will learn, hear, and retain. Every voice deserves to be heard, and we seek these interactions from birth. My hope is that you find these strategies a helpful part of your daily interactions with your little one.