Nurturing Your Child’s First Words

by Care Speech Pathology 
8 July 2022

We have all heard that ‘children develop at their own pace’ and ‘they’ll get there when they get there’. These statements are both true – but they aren’t the whole story. There are a lot of things you can be doing at home today to nurture your child’s first words.

When it comes to a child’s development, there are some things we can’t change. What we can change is the environment they’re in, and environment is everything when it comes to learning to talk.

For example, when was the last time you:

  • intentionally demonstrated the same word all week to increase your child’s exposure?
  • provided an easy gap for your child to chime in (‘Old McDonald had a…’)?
  • kept your sentences simple (e.g., ‘Cuddle teddy’, ‘Eat more’, ‘Come up’) so that your child could keep up? or
  • manipulated the environment to encourage communication (e.g., by putting your child’s favourite toy out of reach and waiting to see what happens next…).

Yes, children develop at their own pace. But no, all environments are not the same for stimulating language learning. There are a number of things you can do at home today to nurture your child’s first words.

Where does it all begin?

Babies are natural communicators who start sending us messages from the moment they are born through sounds, body movements and gestures. These messages rapidly become more complex and, with the right support and environment, usually turn into words somewhere between the ages of 10 and 14 months. Of course, all children are different and some children may need a bit longer.

What can I do at home today?

Remember – from day dot, a child’s most important teachers are their parents, caregivers and educators. There is no app, YouTube video, curriculum or ‘magic wand’ that can teach a child to talk. Language skills are developed every day, through meaningful, natural, face-to-face interactions between children and the adults around them.

Over the page, our Speech Pathologists have assembled their ten top tips for nurturing your child’s language development at home.

  1. Get on your child’s level. Sit on the floor with your child or directly opposite them in their high chair. Face-to-face interactions make it easier for your child to focus on your mouth while you are speaking and learn how they can make those sounds too.
  2. Use comments, not questions. We are all guilty of this one, but children don’t always benefit from our questions – what they really need to learn is the answer! For example, instead of saying ‘What sound does a cow make?’, try saying ‘Moo! The cow says moo!’.
  3. Encourage ‘fast mapping’. ‘Fast mapping’ is when a child is able to add a new word to their mental dictionary quickly because they can make an easy connection between the word and the thing to which it is referring. To encourage fast mapping, try to focus on the ‘here and now’ and talk about things in your child’s immediate environment. It also helps to comment on things that your child is already looking at (for example, say ‘pram’ if you can see your child looking at their pram).
  4. Narrate what you are doing. Talk about what you are seeing doing, or hearing at multiple points throughout the day. For example, if you are on a walk with your child, you might talk about things that happen on the way (e.g., ‘I’m having a rest’, ‘I see a big truck!). Although self-talk can feel silly at first, your child is learning a lot from you.
  5. Narrate what your child is doing. For example, if your child is playing with blocks, you could say something like ‘You are building. You have green!’. By talking about activities and objects that your child is already engaged in, you are increasing the likelihood that they are interested in what you are saying. This can help them to learn vocabulary more quickly.
  6. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Remember a child has to hear a word multiple times before they are ready to say it themselves. If there is a particular word you would like your child to learn, use it over and over again in different contexts to show them how it can be used.
  7. Move desired objects out of reach. Consider placing some of your child’s favourite toys or snacks out of reach but still in view. By doing this, you are encouraging your child to ask for them. Remember that asking may look different depending on your child’s age and stage of language development. This may start with only pointing, but then transition over time to a word like ‘more’, ‘please’ or even the name of the object they want.
  8. Wait and watch. Practise pausing for up to 10 seconds during an interaction to give your child a chance to communicate. During this time, resist the temptation to ask questions or anticipate your child’s wants and needs. For example, if you know your child wants their bottle, wait and see if your child can communicate this themselves before you get it for them. If they are not yet able to find the words, you can provide a model (e.g., ‘You want bottle’, ‘want’, ‘bottle’) so that they have a better chance next time.
  9. Have fun! Like adults, children learn best when they are happy, well-regulated and enjoying themselves. Reading books, playing games and having fun with your child are some of the best things you can do to nurture the development of their first words at home.
  10. Get a professional on your side. Speech Pathologists are specially trained to assess and monitor childhood communication development. Speech Pathologists can work closely with you and your family to ensure you have all the skills you need to nurture your child’s first words.

If you would like to book an initial consultation with a Speech Pathologist from our team, contact us today on 1300 086 280 or at [email protected].

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