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Building Pre-verbal Skills to Create Great Talkers

A baby’s first words usually appear around the age of 12 months, but there is a huge amount of pre-language development that needs to happen before then. From baby’s first few days of life, he or she learns a range of techniques to send deliberate messages to mum and other communication partners. This pre-verbal communication involves eye gaze, gestures, and vocalisations, but there are also several concepts that a baby needs to understand. In this article, we will look at the key pre-verbal skills and concepts that baby needs to grasp, how parents can help baby learn, and when to consider getting professional support for your child.

The Key Pre-Verbal Skills

Baby’s first interchanges will involve smiles and “noises”, expanding to gestures such as showing, pointing, shaking the head and waving. By observing parents’ reactions during these early interchanges, baby will be learning the essential skills that underpin verbal communication. If baby begins to learn the following skills and concepts, he or she will be off to a good start:

  • Eye contact

  • Attention to task

  • Listening

  • Copying

  • Taking Turns

  • Gestures, facial expression and signing/talking with your hands

  • Rhythm and rhyme

  • Intonation (the sound patterns of language)

  • Other social interaction principles, such as greeting and sharing

Problems often arise because some of these underpinning skills are subtle, meaning that baby can easily miss out on opportunities for learning them.

How To Help Your Little-One Learn

Many toddlers who have a language delay or are “late talkers” have missed opportunities to engage with another person. By focusing on your little one, you can give their communication/language a boost! Right from birth, your baby hears your voice. So, you can help him or her learn to enjoy listening by singing together, talking pleasantly to others when near baby, and for simply allowing baby quiet play time to practice babbling.

As baby nears six months, you can encourage eye contact by placing toys near your face, sitting opposite your child and getting down to his or her level of height. This can be encouraged throughout the day, for example, during meal times, nappy-changing, dressing or story time. You can also teach your six month old the concept of imitation – when he or she babbles, repeat the same sounds back!

Closer to a year of age, your youngster should be very interested in games that are suitable for teaching rhyming, turn taking and for reinforcing skills learned earlier. Try games with songs and actions, like Peek-a-Boo or Pat-a-Cake, in which you can also help baby move his or her hands along with the rhyme.

At any age, don’t forget to label objects that you and baby see together – this helps build vocabulary as well as the skill of joint-attention. Labeling is particularly effective when reading books – just point to pictures that baby is interested in and let him or her know what they are. You will be surprised at how soon baby will use the labels too! You may also wish to consider using a select few hand signs for communication. Over 25 years of in-depth research has proven that signing enhances a child’s language development and encourages them to speak earlier. If you choose to use this form of communication in your lives, learn simple signs to add to your daily routine such as “eat” and “all-finished”. Be patient, and try to be repetitive and consistent.

When and How to Seek Professional Support

If you suspect your child has difficulties with speech or its underlying skills – take action. The key to treating language disorders is early intervention, such as when you feel that he or she is not quite meeting age-specific language milestones. You can find charts that list the “ages and stages” of communication for babies and toddlers from many sources online, including our Developmental Milestones Chart. NZ Child, Youth and Family’s ages and stages chart is also worth checking for a wider range of developmental factors. Remember to think about all the prerequisite skills that must occur before those first words are spoken, and consider whether any of the issues below are present with your child:

  • No big smiles or big facial expressions when interacting with parents by 6 months.

  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact with an adult by 6 months.

  • No back-and-forth imitation of sounds or facial expressions by 9 months.

  • Being unresponsive to his or her name at 12 months of age.

  • No babbling by 12 months.

  • No gestures, such as pointing, reaching, or waving by 12 months.

  • Having no words by 16 months.

  • Inability to follow simple, routine directions by 18 months.

If you feel that your child isn’t learning to communicate as quickly as is ideal, it’s worth discussing the issue with Plunket, your Doctor, or even having him or her assessed by a Speech-Language Therapist. A professional will eliminate the possibility of any serious disorders, then provide the right guidance and support for baby – and for you!

In summary, it is crucial to ensure your little one has the best start to communication and language development. Be aware of what the pre-verbal skills are, and how you can encourage key areas while enjoying interacting with your baby! If you are feeling concerned, don’t hesitate – get in touch with your doctor or a Speech-Language Therapist today.

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