Do you ever wonder why some babies are rattling off words by 14 months and others are mostly silent until 18 months or even closer to 24 months old? As a mom of an early talker, I have had a lot of parents comment on my son’s budding vocabulary. I have heard other moms respond “don’t worry, mine’s not taking either yet” or joke that before they know it they wont be able to get them to stop. This article isn’t to say that you should worry, as most children do eventually begin talking, but to offer detailed suggestions that could give them a head start and better prepare them for social interaction, formal education, and my favorite, to communicate wants and needs rather than throwing fits!
As a social worker, I studied child development for years. In practice, I watched speech and language pathologists from Early Supports and Services work with children who were behind and I was amazed by the improvement that was made with just one to two hours per week. It wasn’t until I became a stay at home mom for my own child that I fully understood the huge impact that these simple things could have on a child’s language.
At 14 months old, my son does not yet have a word for everything. He says about 20 words (hi, buh bye, that, bat, baseball, ball, Batman, mermaid, hat, yes, no, Mama, Dada, Nana, Papa, more, moon, bubble, baby, diaper, bum, butt, nuh night), signs another 20’ish words (eat, milk, more, all done, poop, banana, star, tree, bird, dog, book, up, open, water, clock, light, fan, bath, please, thank you, nap, hear), and makes animal noises to identify animals. Everything else is currently “that” or a sound (such as “chhh” for cheese) and pointing.
He is adding new words every week and just yesterday I was able to redirect a budding meltdown using language. My husband was attempting to redirect him from the wagon wheel on our neighbor’s lawn by telling him no and pulling him away. Our son was saying “that that that” (pointing). I saw it coming. The stomping of the feet. The fussing in frustration. The throwing his head back in despair. All the signs were pointing toward Meltdown Ave. I reminded my husband to use his words and explain that we know he wants the wagon wheel, but it is not ours and then redirect his attention to something else. He did and our family walk continued without issue.
Communication is the secret to any good relationship.
You need to give your child the words. In order for your child to be able to identify things by name, you need to identify them for him over and over again. The more times a child hears a word in connection with an object, the more comfortable the child is going to be with the word. This is part of why child development experts recommend reading to children and why many children’s books have a lot of repetition, such as I Went Walking or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? Books are a great way to expose children to new words and objects they may not see on a daily basis (I mean, how many brown bears do you see walking around your yard?). So how to do that:
- Start reading early. We started reading to our baby the moment he was born. At that time, he was mostly interested in looking at the pictures so we would point and describe the pictures to him.
- Make books available. There are always board books on the floor for him to look at on his own in addition to the books we read to him before every nap and bedtime. Most times, he will head straight for his books instead of his toys and often brings books to us to read together.
- Read, read, and then read some more!
- Around five months we really started to get into the board books. The best ones for that age are the ones with different textures and simple images. A favorite for us at that stage was Curious George At The Zoo, but we rented numerous other books from the library. Again, as I read the words I pointed to the object the word referred to, so for example, “The man” (point to man) “in the yellow hat” (point to hat) “is taking George” (point to monkey) “to the zoo today.” The touch and feel books are also fantastic because they encourage the child to interact by touching the different textures of the book. We also encouraged our son to turn the pages. These interactions begin to prepare him for the next stage of reading.
- Once our son began pointing out objects on the page for us to name, we were able to move up to books with more imagery such as I Love Animals. With this book, I rarely read the text, and instead just name the animal and sound the animal makes as he points to the different ones. Sometimes he will point over and over again to the same animal. That is okay, I keep saying the name and making the sound. If you can’t stand to read a book without any kid of story, Goodnight Moon is an oldie but goodie that identifies a lot of common first words.
- Once our son could follow direction such as, “where’s George?” in Curious George At The Zoo, we progressed to find and seek books such as Find The Puppy and picture readers such as Fozzie’s Bubble Bath. The find and seek books provide great opportunities to ask questions, such as: where is the puppy? What does the puppy say? Can you show me where the bowl is? Can you say bowl? Picture readers are also great because the child can follow along with the text and match the image in the picture with the image in the text. The fun part about this stage is seeing all the words your child knows, but doesn’t have the confidence to say quite yet.
- Get comfortable with your local library! There are two major reasons for this. The first is that with so much reading, you will quickly get tired of the books you own. We have over 60 board books, but we read about ten books every day, leaving us only enough to get through six days without reading the same books over again. The library will become your key to sanity! Secondly, the library often hosts events such as story time, which are great opportunities for your child to socialize and learn from others.
- If you want your baby to talk then you need to show your baby how. It can feel a little odd at first. Pushing a new baby around the grocery store, asking the baby, “do you see the bananas? Those bananas look nice and ripe. Let’s buy some bananas. Mommy is going to put these bananas in the cart.” As they get older, this dialog starts to get a little more natural as it progresses to, “oooh that is a pretty blue ball. Do you want to roll the ball? See how Mommy rolls the ball. Can you do it like Mommy?” By the time they are toddling around, you will forget that people without kids are probably giving you strange looks as you follow your child around narrating his actions like, “Wow, what a big boy! You climbed all the way up there. You want to go back down the stairs? Okay. Sit on your butt! Sit on your butt!” This one-sided dialog can sometimes feel unnatural, but it definitely helps your child to put words to the things he sees and does. Before you know it, it starts to become more of a basic conversation where they can begin to add a word or two in response.
- As with any good conversation, you need to spend some time listening. When my son starts to babble, I listen closely to the sound he is making. I will often repeat the sound back to him and show him how that sound can make up words. i.e. “ba, ba, ba, bat.” This becomes even more important when he is pointing to a bat and saying “ba”, I will repeat and encourage, “bat, yes, very good, you said bat!” With this encouragement, he gains confidence in his ability to say the word and confidence in my support, which inspires him to continue practicing.
- Kids love to sing. Oh my gosh, do kids love to sing! Singing and dancing must come pre-programmed because even babies start doing those pulsing squats the minute a good song comes on. Use this to your advantage by using familiar words in a song. Children’s nursery rhymes that identify body parts or demand an action are fantastic because they help the children put the words of the song into context and further develop their language. Some of our favorites have been If You’re Happy And You Know It, Head Shoulders Knees And Toes, 5 Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed, and Old MacDonald Had A Farm which helps with animal sounds. Once we realized the power of the song, we immediately put it to work for us, creating our own masterpieces such as the changing table song to get our little guy to lay still. We kept a stuffed animal monkey on the changing table and every time we brought him to change we would sing, “Changing table monkey says hello! Changing table monkey says hello! He wants to change your bum, not matter where it’s from, changing table monkey says hello!” Worked like a charm.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER WITH PLAY:
- Children learn through playing. Many times we have taught our son by just acting silly. I taught my son to say Batman by telling him, “say bat” then “say man” and screaming “BATMAN!” in a silly voice once he said man. Then of course we could sing “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na BATMAN!” This is the secret to unlocking communication; bringing the different techniques together through play to reinforce the words they are learning. So, for example, first I have him hold up a bat while I pitch to him, narrating, “hold up your bat, Mama throw the ball, hold up the bat, yaaaay you hit the ball! Where did the ball go? Do you see the ball? Get it. Ball! You have the ball.” Then maybe a round of take me out to the ball game followed by Pete The Cat: Play Ball!
So that’s really it. If you build these three things (reading, talking, and song) into your daily routine through play then you can help your child to develop his vocabulary more quickly.