Would you speak to your baby as though you are speaking to a puppy?
We've also included how to know if you're doing it right.
We know the importance of cultivating ways of effective communication with child. And it’s even more important that parents do this in their little one’s crucial early years, when they are developing across all fronts, including speech and language.
But why is one mum suggesting that parents encourage their child’s linguistic development by talking to them like they would to a puppy?
Parents, if you have a pet puppy and a baby, you might find the experience of talking to both of them quite similar. After all, neither can speak back to you (yet, in the case of the baby!) and are dependent on you for well-being. Also both are supremely cute!
That’s exactly what mummy Elissa Strauss experienced with her 18-month-old toddler, in an article on the importance of nurturing language development in toddlers.
Writing to CNN, she explains that both dogs and babies have a “baby schema”: the right mix of a big head, round face and large eyes. A face which, regardless of animal, us humans perceive as delightfully cute, and spurs us to look after and love these beings.
This baby schema also perhaps encourages us to speak to both babies and puppies in the same way: lovingly, with endearments, using a higher-pitched tone of voice and simple language.
However, giving us food for thought, Strauss goes on to say that in her opinion, the difference between puppy and baby, “is potential consequences. Nobody tells you how important it is to talk to your dog. Everybody tells you how crucial it is to talk to your baby.”
As a result, anxiety sets in for parents when looking to “communicate” with their babies. Should I reply to my baby’s babbles? Should I speak in baby language or adult talk? Do I have to constantly narrate everything I do so my baby learns how to talk?
What if things were not so complicated? In fact, what are the best ways to encourage your baby to talk?
Research focusing on the significance of speaking to babies and toddlers has found that a child’s brain grows rapidly during the initial 36 months of life.
Speaking to them excites those connections, giving them the ability to process language. Basically, the more words a baby hears, the better her brain connections become!
Alice Honig is the professor emerita in the department of human development and family science at Syracuse University. According to her, “back and forth responsiveness” is key while speaking with a baby or toddler, because, in her words, it’s a “real intimate connection”.
In terms of young babies, parents can try to make a gentle “coo” sound. Be patient, wait for it… and eventually, your baby will respond with a “coo”, too.
Honig, who also co-wrote “Talking With Your Baby”, said parents and caretakers should practice the “coo” sound while the baby’s still young.
Yup, even if your little one can’t respond with a “coo” immediately!
She explains that cooing is a signal to the baby that “I’m important. Somebody is talking to me. I have to focus.” You’ll be surprised how quickly they learn – in less than a month, your baby will be able to focus instantly as you speak to them.
Honig also recommends changing the “coos” to words, and then sentences as babies grow. However, that doesn’t mean you should stop saying in what baby talk experts term as “parentese“. That is, the high pitched, long voweled, short consonants sounds which we connect to affection – which we sometimes also use to speak to puppies with!
While it may seem that parentese is silly or just “acting cute”, there are real benefits to the baby of using parentese.
Nicole Overy, an American speech-language pathologist, summarises them as below:
- Parentese supports babies in learning language. Stretching vowel sounds and changing the pitch helps babies to understand which part of the word is the start and end. The extra emphasis on sounds also let babies learn a clear model of sounds which forms a word. According to a 1997 study from the University of Washington, exaggerated vowel sounds also help babies to differentiate vowels and different sounds from one another.
- Talking with your baby face-to-face, seeing them eye-to-eye also helps them learn how to interact with other people.
- Enables them to practise motor planning and learn how to talk. One study from Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington found something interesting when they scanned the brains of babies while parents talked to them in parentese. As expected the language areas of the brain were stimulated — including the movement-planning too! ) areas light up as well! These findings mean that babies are actually practising the right motions to make speech while as young as 7 months – far from actual, developed speech.
When it comes to parentese, there is one key thing parents should remember: emphasise your speech, don’t simplify it. That means avoiding incorrect pronunciation (“Wook at de little cutie!”) and focussing on correct examples of speech (“Look at the little cutie!”) instead.
In addition, you shouldn’t shorten sentences or say grammatically incorrect sentences, either. A good example is saying “Dolly want milk?” and not “Does the dolly want milk?”
Remember, parents, it’s okay if sentences like “Does the Dolly want milk?” appear complicated to babies. They set up strong basics and will enable your kids to learn the patterns of language use easier as they grow up.
- expressive language, meaning you can respond by speaking,
- and receptive language, showing that you can understand what was said.
For example, an 18-month-old might not be able to make words or sentences. However, imagine if they did something to help you by just overhearing a topic!
In Strauss’ own experience, she was talking to her husband about feeding her dog. To her pleasant surprise, her 18-month-old proactively took a dog bowl towards the food – a good sign her baby is on the right track of developing receptive language skills.
Honig encourages parents to direct their attention to receptive language. She clarifies that receptive language is how parents can assess a child’s understanding of her surroundings, what is happening, and what others are saying to her.
She recommends parents and caregivers to nurture their baby’s receptive skills by asking questions. Particularly, those with single answers, like “Apple or Orange?”, or “Happy or sad?”
Strauss feels that questions involving emotions are also a plus! These questions help your baby learn how to label and eventually understand their own feelings.
In addition, parents ought to also ask their little ones open-ended questions which drive their brains to think critically and creatively. Questions with no obvious answers will also tell children that their opinion is important.
A good place to start would be asking toddlers a way to go around a puddle in a park by themselves or if can use a handful of clay to do something. Toddlers will often respond with their actions – despite their lack of words.
But when would you know what to do? According to Honig, “It depends. Let your child teach you where your child is at.”