My tips for helping your child develop not just language but conversation skills.
Let me be clear. When I say toddler, I really mean baby since a lot of these tips should begin well before the 1st year and continue throughout childhood. Most toddlers begin talking between the first and second year of life. Its not uncommon for children to begin speaking later than this and it isnt a sign that something is wrong unless it comes with some other distinctive symptoms. I think the most common misconception about childrens speech development is that it comes naturally. It does come naturally you dont need to set your kid up with a speech pathologist or a tutor just to get him to say Mommy. But we also have to purposefully instill communication as a habit for our kids and that takes persistence and continuous effort.
Disclaimer: I am not a child development professional. This all comes from my own perspective as a mother with a child who though still 4 months shy of his 3rd birthday speaks at a 4 and 5 year olds comprehension level. These suggestions come from my own experiences and my own opinion.
Day one talk to your child. Their speech development starts the moment they can connect what they hear with what they see. Days at home with a newborn or infant can be long and lonely. In the beginning it was really more of a way to entertain myself. I think a common misunderstanding is that newborn babies are so fixated on trying to figure out how to poop and nurse that they dont have the capacity to learn speech. But babies are incredible tiny sponges and they are paying very close attention give them something to absorb from day one.
This is an obvious one because there are so many read to your child initiatives out there. I started reading to Orion as his bedtime routine when he was 7 weeks old. I would bathe him (or wipe him down), massage lotion on him, play music then read a story. In the beginning I was reading adult books because they were more for my own entertainment than his. I let him watch my mouth move and tried to be animated to keep his attention. Whether its for 5 minutes or an hour make an effort to read every single day.
Its not hard to do who doesnt love a good car ballad? I was raised by a mother who sings constantly as well as a very musical extended family so maybe its just in my blood. I have a small catalog of goodnight songs (Hey Jude by the Beatles; Smile by Charlie Chapman; Even If by Amel Lareaux; some classic Willy Wonka songs; Stay Awake from Mary Poppins). Singing helps children grasp not just words but the way to pronounce them. You want to help your child learn his name? Make a song about it. My child has not just a first and last name but two middle names (one of which is Arabic) and he can say and spell them all thanks to a catchy song I made up back when we were up at 2 AM for our nightly feedings.
Once your child is past the infant stage and heads into toddler territory you will notice an increase in frustration. They throw fits (or throw toys) and can quickly lose it over the smallest thing. Generally this is because they are getting a bigger grasp on life but dont yet have he social maturity and vocabulary to express themselves. When I notice this happening I get down to my sons eye level and ask him a question. Ill take a stab at what might be wrong or ask him if hes angry something simple that can disarm them and help them understand you want to help. Before jumping to the stop fussing response try to encourage them to express themselves even if its just with one word or a nod.
Set a High Bar
This might sound a little Tiger-Momesque but its important to set an expectation for communication. When my son grunts at me for something he wants I tell him very calmly that he needs to use words not sounds if he wishes to get anywhere with me. Even if Im sure what he wants I dont budge until hes made an effort to communicate. Of course for little ones this can inspire a fit at first but after a few rounds and aided by loving encouragement they will begin to learn to speak up.
Limit Screen Time
It was once explained very plainly to me why TV and devices are harmful to early development. You have to imagine you are a baby and everything is foreign to you. If youre exposed to a magic screen where sounds come out of an unfamiliar face appearing out of nowhere youre going to be pretty confused about how to actually talk. There are queues babies receive from physical conversation that are extremely important. Entertainment can create the expectation that communication is easy when its actually hard work. The recommendation is to keep screens at bay at least until their 2nd birthday theyll be plenty entertained later in life.
Keep it Real
Have real conversations with your kid even if they arent talking back yet. Once they are talking answer their questions as logically as possible. I try not to feed my son too many fluffy fantasies about things just to shield him from reality. Weve already had a very toddler-friendly conversation about what God is, what death means and why people come in different colors. Our job is not to protect them from reality but to teach them how to deal with it. The benefit? Your childs vocabulary will begin to grow and his understanding of the world will be very clear as he gets older.
Keep it Fun
Build variety in your childs reading time. Get a library card and make it a habit to get new books as often as possible. Use silly voices, and ask questions about what they see in the pictures or what they think will happen next. Again, even if your child isnt responding yet include them in the activity as if they will. Encourage other family members to read with them by sending them to grandmas house with a few favorite books. Let them pick their own books out. Bring up stories you have read while youre out and about (i.e. Do you see that train? Doesnt it look like The Little Engine That Could?)
What practices do you use to stimulate your childs comprehension and vocabulary?