Last week I gave a talk to some new mums at a playgroup on the Challenges of Raising Small Children. After the talk, one of the mother’s approached me to ask about her son’s speech. He was two years old, and she was concerned because he was only saying about twenty words. I reassured her that that’s quite normal with little boys. In fact my nephew barely had any words at two, but suddenly at two and a half, his speech took off. Now he’s almost three and you can’t shut him up! Questions about speech are one of the most common concerns new parents face. Why isn’t my baby talking? Are they normal? Do I need to worry?
There seems to be a big variation with what’s normal for baby’s learning to talk.
There are so many factors involved. Girls often seem to develop their speech earlier than boys. Eldest children seem to develop more quickly than second and middle children, perhaps because they get more focussed attention. Personality may also be a factor. Some people are more communicative than others. Some kids don’t even try to speak until they can do it perfectly.
Sometimes the difference is less about what they can say and more about how good their diction or pronunciation is. I often think that children have more words than adults give them credit for, but if their speech is unclear then people don’t always recognise that they are speaking. And then because they don’t get the response, they’re less inclined to use their words and more inclined to use other ways to communicate.
For example, the other day, I was addressing some envelopes and Molly kept stealing my pen and trying to write on the envelopes. She did this a few times, and each time I took the pen back off her and said ‘No’. Then she swiped the pen for the last time, tapped it repeatedly on the paper and said, “Daw, daw, daw, daw.” I don’t know if she was consciously saying the word ‘draw’, but she was definitely trying to tell me something. When I realised, I said, “Oh you want to draw Molly?” and a huge smile broke over her face, as if to say, “You finally got the message Mum!” It is so important to listen and respond when our babies do speak to us!
Here are a few other simple ways you can encourage your baby’s speech development:
1) I’m a big believer in talking to your baby about whatever you’re doing… “Let’s change your nappy” or “Yum apple!” I get a lot of strange looks in the supermarket, but I just commentate as I go and it does help them learn the meaning of words.
2) Leave gaps in your conversation for baby to fill. They learn to take turns in conversation long before they can say any meaningful words.
3) Reading books from an early age also helps with speech and language development. Point to the pictures. Then ask your baby to point to the pictures. A few weeks ago I picked up a book I’d never read before and asked Molly, “Where’s the cat?” and she pointed straight to it. It’s amazing how much they understand if you give them a chance to show you.
4) Singing and nursery rhymes are another good way your baby learns about words and sounds. Look your baby in the eye when you sing or speak to him and let him copy and take turns.
5) Be responsive and reward your baby when she does speak. If she puts her arms in the air, wanting to be picked up, you can encourage her to say ‘up, up’ and reward her by picking her up quickly when she does. Sometimes babies don’t speak because they don’t need to, they can get the same result by crying or whingeing… so when you respond think about how much you want to guess or anticipate your baby’s needs and how much you want him to communicate with words or signs.
Finally if you have concerns about your baby’s speech it’s always worth going to a health professional or speech therapist, as there may be an underlying issue, such as problems with hearing, developmental delay or autism.
Do you have concerns about your baby’s speaking? How have your children been different in their speech development? What tips do you have to help your baby’s speech develop?