Baby Conversations Are an Important Part of Language Development

Baby Conversations are an Important Part of Language Development

Oral language development is a HUGE part of a child’s development! But the rate at which oral language develops is not merely about immersion and exposure. You can’t just turn a TV on or talk around babies in order for them to develop oral language, it’s all about being RESPONSIVE with interactions.

In an amazing book about children’s development called Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain in their chapter titled, “Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t” that,

“it’s not what a child hears from a parent, but what a parent accomplishes with a well-timed loving caress” (p. 207).

Babies developing oral language need us to notice when they are trying to communicate, to give them eye contact, to engage with them, and to respond to them. I like to call these moments baby conversations.

Baby Conversations

These mock conversations involve touch, eye contact, facial expression, and turn taking. Bronson and Merryman provide an example where,

“the baby coos, and daddy responds, ‘Is that so?’ The baby babbles again, and the daddy in jest returns, ‘Well, we’ll just have to ask Mom'” (p. 212).

Being a responsive parent means that you notice and pay attention to the cues that your baby is giving you and respond to them with vocalizations and touch.

In studies of language development, Bronson and Merryman discovered that,

“How often a mother initiated a conversation with her child was not predictive of the language outcomes – what mattered was, if the infant initiated, whether the mom responded” (p. 208).

When your baby is awake, alert, and looking around, get into a comfortable position about 12 inches from his or her face and simply make eye contact. Notice what your baby does. Does he kick his legs excitedly? Do his eyes light up with joy? Do you notice a hint of his first smile? Is he ready to make his first sound?

If he makes a sound, respond to it by nodding your head, smiling, rubbing his head or back, give his hand a squeeze, and say, “Good job!”. Then pause to give him a chance to talk again. Instead of chattering nonstop yourself (which I’ll admit, is tempting to do), continue this pause and respond conversation loop.

Bronson and Merryman also noticed that,

“While most parents seem to intuit their role in this turn-taking pattern spontaneously – without being told to do so by any handbook – they don’t all do so equally well. A remarkable study of vocal turn-taking found that when four-month-old infants and their parents exhibited better rhythmic coupling, those children would later have greater cognitive ability” (p.212).

Having better rhythmic coupling means that you are really in tune with your child, giving him or her an abundance of eye contact and plenty of chances for conversations.

Progression of Sounds

Baby babble may all sound like gibberish, but it follows a progression of overlapping sounds and each type of babble becomes more sophisticated than the one before. When parents notice that their babies are trying to make new sounds and respond to them, it encourages them to progress further.

It takes a year or more for babies to be able to control their vocal tract with no less than 80 muscles to control. There are five major stages of babbling development.

  1. Phonation Stage – In the first two months of life, newborns will cry, cough, grunt, and sneeze, but these sounds do not involve the vocal cords like speech does. The larynx (or voice box), begins to practice the type of vibration necessary for true vowel sounds while the rest of the vocal tract is at rest. You’ll start to hear quasi-vowel sounds from your baby as this develops.
  2. Gooing Stage – From 2-3 months of age, babies start to move their lips and tongue and consonant sounds start to emerge. At this stage, babies start to coordinate their gooing sounds with eye contact and are ready for baby conversations.
  3. Expansion Stage – Beginning at 4-5 months, we start to hear fully resonant vowel sounds and babies explore pitch and intensity with squealing, yelling, growling, whispering, and my favorite…laughter!
  4. Canonical Babbling – Around 6-7 months, the articulators, resonance, and voice become fully coordinated, and you’ll notice sounds that are real syllables. It starts out as repeated syllables but will soon transform into a mixture of consonant and vowel sounds. (It’s not so much that they are trying to say words as they are trying out sounds.) Sounds not in the child’s language will drop away while the commonly heard sounds are mastered. (This is why children who live in a bilingual household benefit from hearing both languages at a young age.)
  5. Integrative or Jargoning Stage – The last stage typically begins between 10-15 months when real words mixed with complex babbling form jargon (or words that make sense in the context of what is happening). Intonation (the rise and fall of the voice while speaking) also develops so nonsense gibberish will sound like comments, questions, and commands. Gestures, body language, and eye contact are also involved. At this stage, children can understand far more than they can say.

Speech and language pathologist Deborah L. Bennett, M.S. CCC-SLP recommends that,

“If the stages of babbling are delayed or absent, or if first words do not emerge by 15 months, the baby should be referred to an early intervention speech and language pathologist for evaluation.”

In Conclusion

When you’re caring for a new tiny human, you’re also probably sleep deprived and worried about things like feeding, diaper changes, and keeping your baby from being fussy, but as babies leave the so called “4th trimester”, they crave more and more stimulation. By giving babies our full attention, eye contact, and presence during these very important baby conversations, their oral language development will grow quickly and progress from one stage to the next and before you know it, you’ll be hearing the beautiful sound of non-stop chatter.