By Jessica Hathorn (Speech and Language Therapist, BSc Speech Language Pathology, UCT)
One of the most exciting milestones for a parent is when their child says their first word. As a paediatric speech therapist, I am often asked by parents how many words a child should say by a certain age or if the number of words that their child is saying is normal. This focus on the number of words spoken is often reinforced by paediatricians who tend to use it as a gauge of a child’s communication skills, BUT the number of words spoken is only the tip of the communication iceberg. Communication begins long before a child can say their first words. As a parent there is so much that you can do to foster communication from birth, but in order to do this, you need to understand exactly what communication is and why it is about more than words.
What is communication?
Communication is the exchange of information or ideas. It is an active process, between two or more people. It involves both understanding information as well as expressing information. Communication can be both verbal (i.e. spoken) and non-verbal (think signs, symbols, written words, body language, gestures and facial expression). For example, crying is an early form of expressive communication in babies. Your baby cries to express a need or feeling such as hunger, discomfort or sleepiness.
Communication and Interaction
Communication and interaction go hand in hand. Prior to verbal (spoken) communication, children need to develop a set of skills, which form the foundation of meaningful interactions between them and their caregivers. These pre-linguistic skills form the foundation of spoken communication and include:
- Eye contact: A child needs to look at the speaker’s face to observe facial expressions and how the mouth moves when a person is speaking. This facilitates speech development, understanding language and active listening.
- Joint attention: This is when two people focus their attention on the same object. This supports shared experiences, thereby developing language skills.
- Turn taking: The back and forth, reciprocal exchange of sounds, words, gestures or actions. This starts in the first few weeks of life with a parent responding to a baby’s sounds and eventually develops into turn taking in conversations.
- Anticipation: Showing a reaction in response to cues that an activity or action is coming e.g. a baby giggling while waiting for the “boo” in a game of peek-a-boo.
- Gestures: Understanding and using the body to communicate such as pointing or reaching, waving bye-bye or shaking your head “no”.
- Facial expressions and body language: This is a powerful form of communication, using your facial and body movements to convey a message.
- Copying: This is when a child copies actions (e.g. clapping), sounds (e.g. “moo”) or words.
What can parents do to develop communication?
Research tells us that positive and meaningful interactions between caregivers and children fosters the development of communication in children. This means that caregivers need to be very sensitive to a child’s communication attempts and to be responsive to that communication. Parents should:
- Make sure they have a communication ready environment. Try to create situations and opportunities for communication e.g. put their child’s favourite toy out of reach.
- Let their child initiate interactions.
- Observe their children carefully and try to interpret sounds, cries, actions and gestures, seeing them as forms of communication.
- Treat their child’s communication as meaningful and respond quickly, within a few seconds.
- Respond in a positive manner, showing their child that they are interested in what the child is trying to communicate.
- Follow their child’s lead and build on what they are interested in.
- Make use of gesture, facial expressions and objects to help develop understanding of language.
Trust your gut
Remember as a parent or caregiver, you have the ability to build your child’s communication skills to help them on the road toward saying their first words and communicating verbally. This road starts with a variety of non-verbal communicative skills. As a parent you know your child best. If you feel that your child is not where they should be in terms of their communication, reach out to a registered speech and language therapist who can help guide you and your child on this journey.