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How to Talk to Your Baby or Toddler (How to be a Good Language Model for Early Language Learners)

Part 3 of a 4 part series: How to Encourage Your Young Child’s Communication Development

Parents of babies and young toddlers are often told to talk to their children in order to encourage their language development. While this is good advice, it is vague. There are a few simple tricks that make your “talking” an excellent language model for your little one. The strategies below help babies and young children learn to understand and say new words. Once children are older, using hundreds of words, and frequently producing sentences, we can make our language more complex. But when children are first learning language the tricks below make all the difference.

  1. Use “parentese.” This is the exaggerated, slightly slower speech many adults naturally use with babies and young children. When we emphasize and lengthen important words (“Oh, you see a BIIIIRD.”) and slow down our speech, young children are more likely to learn and eventually use new words. While some may think of this as “baby talk,” keep in mind that you should use grammatically correct and complete phrases (“Let’s put ON your HAT” not “put hat on”).

  2. Keep it simple. Some adults tend to narrate their child’s day as they would to another adult. Early language learners benefit from hearing short, simple sentences in order to better understand language and learn to talk. Instead of “Before we can go to the park we need to change your diaper because it’s wet and we don’t want you to get a diaper rash” try “Time to change your diaper. It’s so wet. Then we’ll go to the park.”

  3. Use visuals. Point to objects or pictures that support your words. This helps little ones learn these words more quickly. For example, if you are offering snacks and say “Do you want crackers or apples?” hold up or point to each food as you say that word. When reading a book, point to pictures as you talk about them. Use gestures or signs to highlight certain words. For example, if you say “Let’s play chase!” you could make a running motion with your arms.

  4. Follow their lead. Talk about what interests your child. Pay attention to what they are looking at or playing with and talk about that. Stop, wait, and watch your child to see what she is interested in. If you are changing her diaper but she is staring at her star mobile, talk about that: “The mobile is spinning. The stars are shiny.” If you’re reading her a book but she’s staring at the light and shadows from a glass of water, say “That’s my water. You see the light.” Your language will be more meaningful if you take the time to tune into her interests and see the world from her view point.

If these strategies don’t come naturally to you, focus on one at a time until they become automatic. Your child will love to hear you talk!

Happy talking!

Susanna Weinberger, M.S., CCC-SLP

Speech-Language Pathologist

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