Babies begin language development from birth. As they are exposed to the language of their parents and environment, their brain works to make sense of what they are hearing. During the first three years of life, a baby’s brain grows and develops faster than any other period of development.
It is during these early years that children are most intensively focused on speech and language development. During these critical years, babies and young children are most able to absorb language.
Even before they learn to talk, babies are learning to associate sounds and their meaning thanks to repetition of words in their environment.
Stages of language development
Early on, babies start to make sounds on their own. Soon they begin to mimic the sounds they hear around them. Most children say their first word between 9 and 18 months. By the time they are two, a toddler will be able to say between 50 and 150 words, and will understand many more than that.
Toddlers move from one word speech, to two words. Ultimately developing the ability to put words together to form a primitive sentence, such as ‘Up Daddy.’
By the time they are 3, children are using language to ask for things, to comment on what they are observing, to talk about past experiences, and even to describe what they are imagining.
One of the very best things parents can do to support language development in their children is to talk to them – and read to them – frequently. When I started raising a visually impaired son I discovered the benefits of narrating.
For blind babies, talking about everything helps orient them to their environment, preparing them for mobility as well as language development. Naming the objects that they touch and feel provides context as they learn about the world through their other senses.
Sighted babies also benefit from listening to their caregivers talk about the world around them. Narrating provides exposure to the language, builds vocabulary, and contributes to brain development.
Narrating is simply saying what you are doing and making eye contact as you are speaking. Invite engagement and attention during the interaction. Even a newborn can be introduced to language as they experience their first diaper and clothing changes.
The conversation during a diaper change might go something like this:
“Ok, it’s time for a clean diaper. You will feel so much better when we get this wet diaper off.”
“Let’s get these snaps undone. There, now we can take off your diaper.”
“Oh, this wipe is cold! I will be quick so we can get you wrapped up and cozy again.”
“Here comes the clean diaper. I will need to lift you up to put it under you.”
“Ok, we are almost done. Let’s put these snaps together again. Are you warmer now?”
“There, we are all finished. Doesn’t that feel better?”
Using language to describe the process and following a routine that repeats the same motions each time they are changed or dressed supports language development and their participation in the process.
When caregivers narrate regularly, by the time a child is walking they will have heard the names for all the parts of the process a multitude of times. Whether changing, dressing, preparing for a meal, or heading out the door, they will understand and be able to follow simple requests, such as “hold my keys, please”, even before they are able to speak.
Talking to your baby, making eye contact, naming the things you see and do together all establish the foundation of language development.
Language development and Reading
Reading to your baby from the very beginning of life also introduces them to language, words, and the images that represent the things described by the words. These important concepts support written language development in the school-aged child.
Experts recommend that you begin reading to your baby early and continue throughout their elementary years.
A study done by the New York University School of Medicine shows that reading books with a child beginning in early infancy can boost vocabulary and reading skills four years later, before the start of elementary school.
A great place to start is at the public library. Most libraries offer Baby and Me reading time to help inspire reading with young children. Children’s librarians can guide you to board books for infants and toddlers, and picture books for preschoolers.
Another great resource is the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. The Dolly Parton Imagination Library Program provides free books to participants each month. The United Way of Benton Co provides support for this program to local rural residents. If you live in Monroe, Philomath, Alsea, or Blodgett, you can sign up to receive free books here: https://imaginationlibrary.com/usa/find-my-program/
Reading regularly to your baby, toddler and preschooler is the very best way to facilitate language development and early literacy. A sound foundation in language supports early literacy and sets children on a path for success in their school years.
For more information on speech and language development, check out the Communicative Language checklist here:
JOIN US November 6th for the next installment of our Protective Factors series: Knowledge of Parenting & Child Development. Dr. Aoife Magee, Director of the Parenting Success Network and a family and teacher supporter for over 30 years, leads this dynamic workshop that will help parents and educators alike learn how to provide children with respectful communication, consistent expectations, and promote independence. Free to parents; $20 for educators (Set 2 credit available) Call 917-541-4884 for more information and to register.