Helping your baby learn language
Babies learn languages you speak by listening and watching you talk. There are lots of opportunities to use language with your pēpi during the day, whether it's through singing, reading, telling stories, or just chatting to them about what you're doing.
You can help them learn by:
- talking to them in the language you feel most comfortable using. It doesn’t matter what you talk about – just chatting to them as you go about your day, whether describing what you’re doing when you’re changing their nappy, asking them what they can see when you take them out for a walk and describing what you can see, is perfect. The more you talk to them, the better. And interpret their communication attempts (even if it is just a babble).
- using ‘serve and return’ with your baby. When they ‘serve’ – a sound, babble, mouth movement or gesture- ‘return’ it by copying the noise or saying something to them, wait for their response or return, and then keep it going back and forward. This helps strengthen connections in their brain that help them learn about language, communication and social skills. Your pēpi will let you know when they need a break by looking away. They may then look back to you for more, or might need a change to do something else.
- playing with your baby:
- reciting nursery rhymes or singing a waiata
- copying games (copying sounds, banging toys etc.)
- following your baby’s gaze and providing the words that go with what they’re looking at
- providing them the words that go with anything they point at.
It’s never too early to read to your baby. They’ll love listening to your voice, and they’ll start being interested in the pictures. Many babies really enjoy textile books (books with different fabrics/textures they can touch, or flaps they can lift).
When you’re reading to them, you don’t need to follow the words in the book all the time. If your pēpi points to something in the book, pause to describe the picture to them. Be guided by your baby – if they want to skip pages or turn back pages, let them.
Download this great booklet from La Trobe University and Health Victoria about all the things you can do to help your child's communication skills.
Communication: four to six months
Babies experiment with sounds even before they can talk. By four months, they’ve probably started communicating with you in new ways. They might squeal or grunt, copy sounds, and may even try coughing and sneezing to get your attention – and they’ll cry to tell you they need something. By this time you may be learning what each cry means.
They’ll also start laughing – the best sound in the world –and using vowel sounds like ooo and aaa. All their noises are designed to connect with you – and they’re reading your face and watching your response too. These back and forth exchanges help your pēpi learn to communicate, and strengthen your relationship too.
It’s a good idea to reduce background noise (for example, turn off the TV) when playing and talking with your baby to help you both focus. It can be fun to have music in the background.
- watch their cues to see when they’re communicating with you
- make eye contact with your baby when they try to catch your eye
- show your baby you’re listening when they make noises, and respond by smiling, nodding, or talking back to them
- pause to let them reply after you’ve spoken
- communication isn’t only verbal – it’s physical too. If your baby’s telling you they’re upset, reaching out their arms to you or leaning towards you, communicate your love and support for them by picking them up and giving them a cuddle
- read to your pēpi as much as you can, pointing to letters and pictures, and encouraging them to gently touch or turn the pages.
Communication: seven to nine months
Around this age, your baby might start copying sounds you make, and mimicking your gestures. They may start using more obvious body language to let you know what they need – reaching up to get you to pick them up, pointing to objects or things they want, or crawling around after you.
They may start babbling, getting closer to forming words with sounds like baba, gaga or dada as they talk to you more.
At this age help your baby learn to communicate by:
- using words to describe what your baby’s telling you when they let you know they need something. If they raise their arms, ask if they’d like to be picked up. If they’re crying for food, ask them if they’re hungry and feed them: “you’re hungry aren’t you - let’s have something to eat.”
- continuing teaching them about conversation by repeating their words back to them. If they say mama, repeat it back to them, and pause for their response.
All pēpi are different, and some communicate more than others. If your baby is quiet and takes a while to warm up, they may be less vocal then children with more outgoing personalities. Supporting them to develop their personality and understanding their differences helps.
Communication: 10-12 months
Your baby has a distinct personality, and shows emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, hurt, discomfort and fear.
Their motor skills are developing, and they may start to get more independent, using their hands and fingers to do more for themselves. This means they can entertain themselves in short bursts with familiar toys or other objects, and may include you in this play by pointing to toys they want or holding up things to show you.
They’ll also use those little hands and fingers as important tools for non-verbal communication – starting to wave, clap and point.
- Pēpi point at:
- things they’re interested in
- things they want you to see
- things they want
- things they remember, even if they aren’t there any more.
At this age, here are some ways you can respond to your pēpi.
- Encourage your baby learn to wave, clap, and point by telling them what they’re doing and showing them how. Point at things and name them, wave goodbye, shake your head no and nod your head yes.
- Show them games like ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes”, touching the different parts of your body and naming them.
- Show interest in what they’re doing, and encourage them their interests. If they show you a car they’re playing with, look at it and talk to them about it: “That’s a nice red car. It’s a small red car.
- Pēpi love you playing with them. Try showing them how you make a lid fit onto a container and encouraging them to try, or hiding a toy in a box while they’re watching and letting them find it. Their reactions will delight you, and they’ll love it when you praise them.
- They will communicate with you by coming back to be with you. This might be to show you something so you can delight in it, or because they’re upset and need comfort.
- Respond to and name your baby’s emotions. If they’re cautious of something in their environment, or if something gives them a fright, talk to them about it – “that gave you a fright, didn’t it? It’s okay, this is a very noisy toy.” With your reassurance, they’ll have the confidence to keep playing and exploring, you’ll help your baby understand and eventually manage their feelings, and you’ll help them understand, name and express words those feelings.
All tamariki develop at their own pace. If you’re worried about any aspect of your child’s development, it’s a good idea to talk with your Plunket nurse or GP. You can also call PlunketLine any time, day or night.
Communication: by age one
By one year, most tamariki:
- respond to their name
- respond to common words like “well done!” and “bye bye”
- know the names of familiar things, like mämä, papa and teddy
- will show you objects to get your attention
- are starting to use some single words
- enjoy playing repetitive games like peekaboo with others
- take turns in conversations with adults by babbling
- use their words and gestures to be social, to ask and to show
- start to show an interest in looking at pictures in books.
- enjoy listening to songs, oriori and nursery rhymes.