Communication and talking: what to expect in the early years
Babies are born ready to communicate with you.
Newborn babies communicate by crying. This is how they let you know that they’re hungry, uncomfortable, in pain or need comfort. Sometimes babies cry for no obvious reason.
During the first 3 months, babies begin to use their voice and body to communicate. For example, they’ll smile, laugh, make cooing sounds, and move their arms and legs when they’re interested or excited.
From around 3 months, you’ll see and hear baby language starting to develop. This happens when you and your child make eye contact, interact and take turns, almost as if you’re having a conversation.
After about 9 months of age, your child will let you know they’re interested in something by staring, pointing, touching and grabbing.
By about 12 months of age, your child will probably understand the names of things they see or use often, like ‘cup’, ‘doll’ or ‘toe’.
And as your toddler’s language develops between 1 and 2 years, you and your child might start to have simple conversations. For example, they might draw your attention to something and say, ‘That?’ (‘What’s that?’)
In language development at 2-3 years, children start to use words to ask for familiar things like food and toys. They also use words to comment on things that interest them. By about 3 years of age, children can ask and respond to basic questions and follow simple instructions. They might start to join sentences using words like ‘and’.
You can respond to your child’s communication in many ways – by talking and singing gently, chatting during the day and enjoying back-and-forth communication about things that interest your child. When you respond in these ways, you encourage your child to keep communicating, which helps them learn language. You also strengthen your relationship with your child, which is good for their overall learning, development and confidence.
How to talk and communicate with babies and toddlers
Talk to your child a lot
Children learn to talk when parents and caregivers talk to them a lot. You don’t need to make a special time for talking. Any and all talking is good for your child. This includes talking while you dress or bath your baby, talking while you play, singing songs and nursery rhymes, and reading.
When children hear a lot of different words, they’re likely to learn, understand and use plenty of different words themselves.
Tune in and respond
The way you talk to your child is important for helping them learn language.
It’s all about responding to your child when they show interest in something. This starts with tuning in to what your child is interested in or what they’re trying to tell you, and then saying something about it to them. It’s good to leave a gap after you’ve responded to your child. This gives your child time to take in what you’ve said and respond in their own way.
For example, if your child points to a tree, you might say, ‘It’s a great big, enormous tree, isn’t it?’ Then wait. Your child might point, babble, squeal or say words. Then you could respond again by saying something like, ‘I wonder what kind of animals live in that tree? Maybe possums?’
Noticing and responding, waiting, and then responding again keeps the interaction going and helps your child learn about conversation.
Pay attention to your child’s cues
Sometimes you might find that your child doesn’t respond, even when you leave a gap after you’ve said something. That’s OK, because babies and toddlers like quiet times too.
If you pay attention to your child, your child’s interest and responses will guide your communication. For example, if your child starts to look tired, restless or grumpy, take a break from chatting. You can try again another time.
Your child’s temperament might also affect how much and how often they want to communicate with you. Some children are naturally more outgoing, and others are quieter.
The sing-song voice that some grown-ups use around babies is called ‘child-directed speech’ or ‘parentese’. It sounds a bit like this: ‘Helloooo babbeeee, who’s a liddle baaabeeee?’ It can also include ‘baby words’ like ‘bikkie’ or ‘birdie’. This kind of talk helps your baby pay attention to your face and voice, and listen to the sounds that make up speech.
Tips for baby and toddler communication and talking
You can talk with children from birth.
Here are ideas for talking and communicating with your child even before they can talk back:
- Look for times when your child is alert, because this is when they’ll be most interested in communicating.
- Respond to your child’s attempts at communication. For example, if your child makes eye contact with you, smiles or reaches out to you, you can respond by being enthusiastic, warm and encouraging.
- If your child points or waves, talk about the things they’re pointing or waving to. Praise your child if they wave and then wave back.
- Use your tone of voice to make your conversation interesting and engaging. Plenty of facial expressions are good too.
- Sing songs and rhymes in the car, in the bath, at bedtime – even if it’s off-key. Singing in a second language is fun and helps your child learn too.
- Read books and tell stories, each day if you can. You can talk about the pictures in books, wonder out loud what might happen next, or make up your own stories to go with the pictures. If your child shows interest in something on the page, it’s OK to talk about it as long as they want to.
As your child learns to talk, these ideas can build their language and confidence as a communicator:
- Give your child time to find words for their ideas, and really listen when they talk. For example, let your child finish what they’re saying before you talk. This sends the message that what your child has to say matters.
- If you use complex words, explain and build on them by using descriptive words. For example, ‘We’re going to see the paediatrician – that’s a special doctor who knows all about babies and children’.
- Talk to your child about things they’re interested in – for example, what grandpa might be doing today, a story you’ve read together, or something that’s happening outside.
- Talk about an experience you shared – for example, ‘It’s sunny today. But remember how wet we got on the way home yesterday? Your socks were soaked!’
- Play games and do activities that help your child learn new words in a fun way. For example, you could play Guess the animal or look for words when you go to the park or the shops.
The main thing is to create a loving, warm feeling between you and your baby or toddler. You can use simple, enjoyable interactions, plus play ideas to encourage baby talking and play ideas to encourage toddler talking.
Talking and communication: when to be concerned in the early years
Children develop communication skills at different times.
For example, many babies make eye contact and sounds early, but others might not start until around 3 months. If your child doesn’t do something at the same age as others, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be worried.
But sometimes delays in communication skills can be signs of developmental delay, language delay or developmental disorders including deafness and hearing loss, intellectual disability and autism.
You know your child better than anyone else. If you’re worried, talk to your child and family health nurse, your GP or another child health professional. If your health professional doesn’t have concerns about your child, but you still do, it’s OK to seek another opinion.