Infants and toddlers are able and ready communicators. They communicate through gestures, sounds, facial expressions, movements, and language.
The capacity to communicate is the ability and desire to connect with others by exchanging ideas and feelings, both verbally and non-verbally.
Most children learn to communicate to get a need met or establish and maintain interaction with a loved adult.
Babies communicate from birth through sounds (crying, cooing, squealing), facial expressions (eye contact, smiling, grimacing) and gestures/body movements (moving legs in excitement or distress, and later, gestures like pointing.)
Babies continue to develop communication skills when adults respond to their efforts to “tell” others about what they need or want.
Children’s communication skills grow by leaps and bounds across the first few years of life:
A newborn nuzzles at her mother’s breast. Her mother says, “Oh, you must be hungry. Here you go.”
This baby is learning that her loved ones will respond to her signals and communications.
A 9-month-old starts messing with the food on his high chair as if wiping it clean with his hands.
His father notices, saying: “Hey buddy, looks like you’re telling me you are all done. How about I take you out of there, and we can head to the park.” This baby is learning that he is an effective communicator.
A 28-month-old is at the park. She is pointing urgently at something and saying to her grandfather, “Deal! Deal! Deal!” He says, “I’m sorry, sweetie, I don’t understand. Could you repeat it?” She continues to point and repeats herself several times. Finally, her grandfather says, “Oh, the squirrel. Yes, I see him up there in the tree!”
This toddler learns that her loved ones will “hang in there” and work hard to understand her attempts to communicate.
A 3-year-old chats with his mother on the way home from preschool. He tells her he liked the songs and snack but didn’t like how the sand felt on his hands.
His mother listens and asks him questions. This toddler is learning that what he has to say is essential to the people who love him and a good communicator.
Good communication development starts in the first year of life and goes far beyond learning how to talk.
Communication development has its roots in social interaction with parents and other caregivers during everyday activities.
Your child’s growth in social communication is significant because it helps your child connect with you, learn the language and play concepts, and sets the stage for learning to read and future success in school.
Good communication skills are the best tool to prevent behaviour problems and make it easier to handle moments of frustration that all infants and toddlers face.
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Infants’ and toddlers’ abilities to communicate grows as they interact and share with others.
The sounds, tones, and patterns of speech that an infant hears early on sets the stage for learning a specific language.
They begin to understand words, express themselves using words and learn the rules of conversation in their language.
Please think of how exciting it is to hear young infants making new sounds each day, hearing an infant say new words, or listening to toddlers express themselves by stringing words together!
The chart below highlights infant and toddler language and communication skills as they grow.
Keep in mind that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which infants and toddlers meet these milestones and that each infant and toddler is unique.
As you may have already learned in the Cognitive Development and Physical Development courses, milestones guide when to expect specific skills or behaviours to emerge.
Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development or to help you know when and what to look for as young children mature.
As an infant and toddler caregiver, you can use this information, what you learn from families and your knowledge in the interactions, experiences and environments you create for infants and toddlers.
Language and Communication Developmental Milestones in Infants & Toddlers
- Responds to sounds by making sounds
- Strings vowels together when babbling (“ah,” “eh,” “oh”) and takes turns while making sounds
- Responds to own name
- It makes sounds to show joy and displeasure.
- Begins to say consonant sounds (jabbering with “m,” “b”)
- Responds to simple spoken requests
- Uses simple gestures like shaking head “no” or waving “bye-bye.”
- Makes sounds with changes in tone (sounds more like speech)
- Says “mama” and “dada” and exclamations like “uh-oh!”
- Tries to say words you say
- Says several single words
- Says and shakes their head “no.”
- Points to show someone what he wants
- Points to things or pictures when they are named
- Knows names of familiar people and body parts
- Says sentences with 2 to 4 words
- Follows simple instructions
- Repeats words overheard in conversation.
- Points to things in a book
- Follows instructions with 2 or 3 steps
- Can name most familiar things
- Understands words like “in,” “on,” and “under.”
- Says first name, age and sex
- Names a friend
- Says words like “I,” “me,” “we,” and “you” and some plurals (cars, dogs, cats)
- Talks well enough for strangers to understand most of the time
- Carries on a conversation using 2 to 3 sentences
A Critical Time: 9 to 16 Months
The wealthiest moments for early language learning are when a child and caregiver share attention on the same thing and the caregiver talks about the child’s focus of attention.
This creates opportunities to learn that stem from actions with objects and gestures.
By observing early actions with objects and gestures between 9 and 16 months, you can get a critical snapshot of what a child knows and is thinking about.
If a child is not using various actions with objects and gestures from 9 to 16 months, then the parent may not have the chance to respond and follow the child’s focus.
This limits the child’s opportunity for the wealthiest moments to learn to talk.
Spotting small gaps in early actions with objects and gestures from 9 to 16 months is the best time to get ready for preschool so children can reach their potential by kindergarten.
Key social communication milestones develop between 9 and 16 months, and they provide the foundation needed to launch language and learning:
- use eye gaze and facial expression to share emotion — both enjoyment/interest and frustration/distress
- use eye gaze and communication to share attention, interests, and ideas
- communicate at an increasing rate with gestures, sounds, and a few words sprinkled here and there
- use a variety of actions with objects in play and other everyday activities
- understand the meaning of spoken words
If these early social communication milestones are not solidly in place, a child will likely be delayed in learning to talk.
It is essential to keep in mind that delays in these social communication milestones may indicate a risk for developmental delays, including autism.
By detecting small gaps in early social communication skills, you can get extra help to support your child’s development before significant delays are evident.
Delays in Communication and Language Development
Delays in communication and language development are often the first sign of developmental problems in young children.
Families with concerns should seek intervention as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment for developmental delays increases the chances of improvement rather than simply “waiting it out” and treating problems later.
Earlier Is Better
Treating communication and language difficulties early on can prevent potential problems with behaviour, learning, reading and social interaction.
Recent research on brain development reminds us that “earlier is better” when teaching young children.
By age 3, most of the primary brain structures are mature, and it becomes more challenging to make significant changes in a child’s growth and development.
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How Infants and Toddlers Communicate
As you study the chart above, you may notice that some milestones are associated with infants’ and toddlers’ ability to listen to and understand language (receptive communication).
Other milestones are associated with infants’ and toddlers’ ability to express themselves using sounds, movements, gestures, facial expressions and words (expressive communication), and some are associated with infants’ and toddlers’ knowledge and ability to engage in communication exchanges with peers or adults (social engagement).
Let’s look at how these aspects of communication unfold as part of the remarkable development of young children during their first three years.
Receptive communication refers to an infant’s or toddler’s ability to listen to and understand language.
They begin to understand language as part of their nurturing relationships with responsive, trusting adults and make sense of gestures, facial expressions, and words well before verbally expressing themselves.
Expressive communication is the ability of infants and toddlers to express themselves through sounds, gestures, facial expressions and words.
A beginning point for expressive communication is the infant’s cry.
Cooing is another form of early communication and can begin as early as one month. By six months, you can hear new sounds like “ma,” “ba,” and “da.”
By 18 months, you may hear toddlers using two- and three-word sentences, such as “me go” or “more drink, please.”
Social engagement involves understanding and using communication rules such as listening, taking turns and appropriate ways to use sounds and facial expressions.
Conversations involve both understandings (receptive communication) and expressing (expressive communication).
Infants and toddlers learn how to use sounds, gestures, facial expressions and words of their family’s language(s) when adults interact, talk, read and sing with them.
Supporting Communication, Language, and Literacy
Effective communication, language, and literacy skills are essential to young children’s self-expression, social relationships, and learning.
The foundation for these skills begins during the earliest months and years after birth.
When families and caregivers engage in and sustain interactions based on an infant’s or toddler’s development and interests, they help strengthen their role as partners in communication.
Research demonstrates that these skills depend significantly on language experiences during infancy and toddlerhood.
Children who hear fewer words are engaged in less conversation before age 3 with their caregivers and have dramatically smaller vocabularies than children who have richer early language experiences.
Communication and language development happens best in the context of consistent, caring and responsive relationships.
Your role as an infant and toddler caregiver offers opportunities to support these skills throughout the day.
You can use your knowledge about communication and language development alongside your observations of the infants and toddlers in your care.
Together, this information can create opportunities to partner with infants and toddlers to maintain an infant’s or toddler’s interest through communication.
For example, during mealtime with infants and toddlers, you can maintain eye contact, smile, repeat and add meaning to the infant’s sounds, or follow a toddler’s eyes as they look at the green vegetables on their plate and then say, “You’re looking at your green peas. What else is green?”
Or, talk about who is sitting next to an infant or toddler. “Who is going to sit beside you today at lunch, Tommy? Oh, look, Cassandra is going to sit beside you.”
Your role as an infant and toddler caregiver also offers an opportunity to create an environment that provides what infants and toddlers need to become good communicators early in life.
A communication-rich environment is characterized by intentional and frequent use of such strategies as:
- Learning about communication and language development in infants and toddlers
- Talking with and learning from families, as well as observing and identifying the developmental stage of individual infants and toddlers, and offering experiences and activities that can best support their development and learning
- Adding words and ideas best to describe infants’ and toddlers’ understanding of experiences
- Being responsive to infants’ and toddlers’ communication attempts and building on what they are expressing
- Talking with infants and toddlers about the events of the day
- Following infants’ and toddlers’ leads, cues, and preferences
- Including new words in conversations
- Embedding songs, rhymes, and fingerplays into daily routines and experiences
- Describing infants’ and toddlers’ actions, interests, events, or feelings
- Reading to infants and toddlers frequently and providing opportunities for them to engage with books and printed materials
- Incorporating alternative ways and systems of communication-based on individual needs (e.g., using pictures or visual cues to foster communication)
How to Support Your Child’s Communication Skills
Here are some ideas to help your baby or toddler develop communications skills:
Respond to Your Baby’s Gestures, Looks and Sounds.
When he puts his arms out to you, pick him up, kiss him and use simple words. “You want to wake up.” When he coos, coo back.
When he gazes at you, make eye contact and talk with him. These immediate and attuned responses tell your baby that his communications are essential and effective.
This will encourage him to continue to develop these skills.
Talk With and Listen to Your Child.
When you talk with her, give her time to respond. Make eye contact on her level.
This will communicate your desire to hear what she has to say. Ask open-ended questions: “What do you think about today’s rainy weather?” “Where do you think the rain goes?” “How do you think the rain helps flowers grow?” “Why is the sky so grey?”
Talking with your child helps her see herself as a good communicator and motivates her to develop these skills.
Help Children Build on Their Language Skills.
“So you are pretending to be a hungry caterpillar who wants to eat some food? What kind of food? Let’s name all the things you want to eat.”
Teach Your Child About Non-Verbal Communication.
“Luis, do you see how Andi is holding her hands up to cover her face? She doesn’t like it when you throw the ball so hard. I know you can throw it softer, so she will want to keep playing catch with you.”
Respect and Recognise Your Child’s Feelings.
Children are far more likely to share their ideas and feelings if they know they won’t be judged, teased, or criticized.
You can empathize with a child’s experience yet disagree with his behaviour. For example, “I know you’re scared to sleep alone, but you need to stay in bed. Would you like some quiet music on?” Or, “I know you’re angry, but you can’t throw the blocks. Here’s a pillow you can punch instead.”
Help Your Child Develop a “feelings” Vocabulary.
Provide the words for her experience. “You’re sad because Daddy left for his trip.”
Keep in mind that feelings are not good or bad; they are. Sometimes parents are afraid that talking about an intense feeling will escalate it, but many times, the opposite happens:
When children feel that their feelings and experiences are respected, they can often move on more quickly.
Cuddle together for quiet times with a book. Encourage your older baby to turn the pages and to point to what he sees.
Ask your older toddler how the characters might be feeling and wonder together what will happen next. Let your child choose the books.
The more interest he has in the book, the more attentive and enjoyable your time together will be.
And reading with your child teaches more than literacy and language skills. He is learning that you value his interests and choices and that you love him and enjoy being close to him.
Studies show that lifelong readers are those who, as children, found reading a pleasurable experience (what was read didn’t seem to matter as much as how children felt about the activity).
Narrate What You Do as You Go Through Your Daily Routines.
This helps your child connect words with objects and actions. “I’m washing the dishes. I’m squeezing the yellow dish soap into the warm water.”
Talk about what you’re doing as you care for your child. “Here we go into the bathtub. Your arms, legs, and tummy are all getting wet. Rubber Ducky is having a bath too.” Talk as you play together: “You’re brushing your dolly’s hair. She has long hair. Are there any tangles?”
With verbal toddlers, you can create a tradition where each family member shares something about his day.
Ask your child questions about her day. Once she can speak, encourage her to ask you things too.
Encourage Pretend Play.
Children often express themselves more freely when they’re pretending. It may feel safer to talk about how Teddy Bear is afraid of the dark than the child.
Pretend play is also a chance to take on different roles and act out what other people might say, think or do. This develops language as well as social skills like empathy.
Make Your Requests Clear, Simple, and Appropriate for Your Child’s Age and Ability.
For a 1-year-old, you can give one-step directions like, “Go get the ball.”
For an 18-month-old, you can give two-step commands like, “Please go to your room and get your shoes.”
Be sure you have your child’s attention first by calling his name or gently touching him and looking directly at him at his eye level.
You can ask an older child to repeat the request to make sure he heard and understood the communication.
Be a Good Role Model.
Your child is overseeing you. If you talk to others with kindness and respect, she will likely follow your lead and take on your manner and tone as she becomes more verbal.
And, when you expect this kind of respectful communication from others, you are modelling how she should expect to be treated by others as well.
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