How can I encourage early communication?

Being able to communicate effectively with others is probably the most important of all life skills. It enables us to pass on information to other people, and to understand what is being said to us. We can all remember our baby’s first word.

Communication is a skill that we start perfecting from birth as we watch the adults around us and first start making noises. A responsive adult is crucial in supporting young children’s communication.

Here at KTB Kids parents often ask how they can encourage their children’s early communication skills. In this feature we explore the how, what and when.

What can I do to help?

Babies and children are all unique in their development, progressing at different rates, but there are common developmental ‘milestones’ for communication that generally occur by certain ages. It is important to understand what your child should be doing, and when, you are then much better placed to support them in meeting their milestones. We have included a guide by age to communication milestones at the end of this blog.

Babies and young children communicate with an adult by watching their faces and might try to copy what they do. Being able to copy is important for young children – it is how they learn.

Encouraging baby talk

  • Get close, always get down to babies’ level to play, listen and talk, 65 percent of communication is nonverbal, very young babies learn most about communication from facial expressions.
  • Talk to and listen to baby you can never talk too much, it is important to tell a baby what you are doing, what is happening and what you notice about them. They will be listening and taking it all in. Remember to leave little spaces in your talk for your baby to join in or start the ‘conversation’, ask them questions, tell them what your see, you may get a gurgle for an answer.
  • Copy baby sounds, mimic their babbling, take turns and have a ‘conversation’.
  • Use actions with words, try waving as you say ‘bye-bye’ or holding your hands out to your baby and saying ‘up’, this will help them understand the words and encourage them to join in.
  • Sing songs and rhymes, when you sing, words and phrases are slowed down and can be better understood by your baby. Singing regularly will help your baby to build up a vocabulary of sounds and words long before they can understand the meaning.
  • Playing peek-a-boo helps a baby learn that you come back when you go away. Sometimes cover your face and sometimes theirs. This along with action songs all help to develop concentration.  
  • Look at and talk about picture books. Reading to children on a daily basis gives them the best start to life. It is never too early to start communicating with a book.
  • Play and repeat, babies learn language through play, interaction & repetition, so anything that does this is good- e.g. ‘ready, steady, go’, with balls and ‘all fall down’ with brick towers.

Encouraging toddler talk

  • Respond to what they are doing and saying, listen to the sounds they make and say the word you think they are trying to say. Provide a running commentary to their play and everyday activities e.g. ‘you’re washing your hands’ and name objects they are paying with. 
  • Encourage your child to name objects they want instead of pointing, modelling these words during play and through routines. Give them lots of time to say what they want to say and give lots of praise for attempting to say words.
  • Limit distraction such as the TV young children find it difficult to eliminate background noise like we can as adults, so they will be unable to listen or concentrate if the TV is on during play time.
  • Remove dummies, they restrict the mouth movement children require to talk.
  • Share picture books together, you can point to the pictures, tell them what they are and wait for a few seconds for them to try and copy you.

Encouraging your preschool child to talk

  • Extend sentences, this will show them how to say slightly longer sentences e.g. if they say ‘car’, you could say ‘’daddy’s car’ or if your child says ‘all gone’ you could add ‘apple all gone’
  • Repeat don’t correct, repeating any unclear words back to them will show your child the right way to say them without feeling them feeling ‘corrected’
  • Singing nursery rhymes, leaving gaps for your child to fill in e.g. ‘twinkle, twinkle, little …….’
  • Go for listening walks and play listening games, pointing out and encourage guessing sounds that you can hear outside can help your child to develop their listening skills.
  • Read lots of stories but make sure there are lots of pictures for your child to look at. Talk about the pictures and give them time to talk about the pictures too.
  • Use the same word in different sentences, it helps your child to understand how the word can be used in different contexts.

Above all remember communication is a socially learnt skill and requires interaction with others and a supportive, responsive adult is all a child needs for their communication to thrive. More information on ways you can support your child’s communication skill can be found here

Important early communication milestones

To help you to understand the when, here are some guidelines to expectations for communication for young children from birth to 4 years.

Babies up to 6 months old

Typically babies under the age of 6 months old will:

  • Make sounds, like cooing, gurgling & babbling, to themselves and with other people.
  • Make noises to get your attention.
  • Watch your face when your talk to them.
  • Get excited when they hear voices coming, maybe kicking or waving their arms or making noises.
  • Smile and laugh when other people smile and laugh.
  • Make sounds back when talked to.

 Babies up to a year

As they approach their first birthday babies begin to develop more ways of communicating. They make noises, point, and look to get your attention. They start to understand routines, simple words, and activities. Typically, by one year babies can:

  • Make talking noises, babble string of sounds, like ‘ma-ma-ma’, ‘ba-ba-ba’.
  • Point and look at you to get your attention.
  • Will be close to or will be saying their first words.
  • Will be using gestures.
  • Start to understand words like ‘bye-bye’ and ‘up’ especially when a gesture is used at the same time.
  • Recognise the names of familiar objects, things like ‘cup’ and ‘bowl’, ‘teddy’ and ‘mummy’.
  • Look at you when you speak or when they hear their name.
  • Takes turns in ‘conversation’, babbling back to an adult.

Toddlers up to 2 years

This is an extremely exciting time – between 1 to 2 years children are beginning to talk lots more. Not everyone will understand but they are having a good try at saying a handful of words. By the age of 2 year, they typically:

  • Begin talking! They will be able to say around 20 words. These are usually things they hear a lot at home or nursery- such as ‘milk’, ‘doggy’, ‘hurrah’, ‘bye-bye’, ‘more’, ‘no’.
  • Says words in a baby way, but are usually consistent in how they sound.
  • Understand some simple words and short phrases. These are usually things they hear a lot during the day, such as ‘coat on’, ‘drink’, ‘shoes’, ‘bus’, ‘in your buggy’, ‘dinner time’, ‘all gone’.
  • Recognise and point to familiar objects when you ask them.
  • Enjoy games like ‘peek-a-boo’ and ‘pat-a-cake’ and toys that make a noise- they still like the comfort of a familiar adult near by.
  • Begin exploring their world and starting to enjoy simple pretend play, like pretending to talk on the phone.

Children up to 3 years

By the age of three children normally:

  • Follow simple two step commands e.g. “give the cup to daddy”, “show me teddy’s nose”.
  • Understand action words, e.g. “eating”, “sleeping”.
  • Understand information about the “here and now”.
  •  Understand “what” and “where” questions.
  • Use at least 50 words such as names of people, objects and actions
  • Start to join two words together e.g. “more juice”, “daddy work”, “ball there”.
  • Use a wide range of speech sounds like “p, b, m, n, w”. By two I am
  • beginning to say the “t, d, k, g and h” sounds.

Children up to 4 years

As children approach the end of their early years and head toward starting their school life, they:

  • Follow instructions with three key words in them e.g. “give the cup and the spoon to daddy”, “find your coat, your shoes, and your bag”.
  • Understand some describing words, for example big, little, fast, slow.
  • Understand “who” and “where” questions.
  • Speak in sentences with at least three words in them.
  • Use some describing words, for example big, little.
  • Talk about the “here and now”.
  • Ask some simple questions.
  • Use a wide range of speech sounds and am beginning to use the “f, s, l, and y” sounds. Sometimes I miss the ends of words off.