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Baby Communication: Newborn to 1 year

This is a guest post by Julie Miller

Communication begins at birth.  Communication is not the same as talking. Talking is only a small part of communication. Babies do not talk from birth (as a general rule), but they do communicate. The communication skills used before the onset of real words are called “pre-verbal communication skills”.

You can help promote your baby’s pre-verbal communication skills from the beginning of his/her life.

 (A) 0-8 months – Pre-intentional stage

Babies’ communication at this age is preintentional (babies do not predict any particular outcome from their behaviours). Intentional communication begins to develop as adults respond consistently to babies’ actions.

1) Observe and follow baby’s lead

* Recognise baby’s state (e.g. sleep, drowsy, quiet alert, active alert, crying). A baby in the quiet alert state is ready to interact.

* Identify baby’s focus of attention, and use simple language to describe what baby is touching, looking at.

2) Promote interactive behaviour

* Imitation and turntaking.Copy baby’s behaviour and wait for a response. Baby’s behaviour could be vocal (e.g. vowel sounds and babble “ah”, “ee” etc) or motor actions (e.g. facial expressions, moving hands). This is often referred to as “match and wait”.

* Joint Attention. Start by following baby’s focus of attention as above, respond and later introduce a new object of focus. (e.g. When both my children were younger, they were fascinated by lights. I felt like I was forever commenting; “Ooh, lights. You are looking at the lights.”  Baby’s attention would generally switch to me, rather than the lights, when I spoke. I could then introduce a new focus such as a toy).

* Anticipatory sets. This refers to interactive games we play with babies. The games are always the same, and use predictable patterns of actions and words. Examples are “peek-a-boo” and “I’m going to get you”.

3) Monitor vocal development

Vocal communication in babies progresses from crying and reflexive sounds, through vowel sounds, repetitive consonant sounds and varied consonant sounds.

As parents, we naturally adjust our vocal patterns when interacting with babies. You may have heard of “motherese”. Babies engage more with voices that are high-pitched and use exaggerated intonation. They like simple words and short, repetitive sentences. You can also respond to baby’s vocalcommunication by imitating and modelling new sounds (e.g. baby says “ahh”, parent says “ahh…boo”).

(B) 9-12 months – Developing intentional communication

From about 9 months, babies begin to understand more about the world, and how their actions can impact the responses of those around them. Parents of older babies can begin to push communication skills a little more.

1) “Up the ante”

* Aim to elicit a higher-level of response from baby. For example, when playing “peek-a-boo”, parent may begin by simply pausing before revealing his/her face. Next, parent may wait for baby to act (e.g. baby pulls at parent’s hands). After this reaction is established, parent may wait for a vocalisation as well (e.g. baby says “ahh” and pulls at parent’s hands).

* Reward gestures and vocalisations that are used for communication (e.g. pointing, waving, sound to get parent’s attention, attempts at words).

* Demonstrate relationship between actions and words (e.g. as baby reaches up to be picked up, parent says “up”).

* Use lots of books – show pictures, then encourage pointing, then vocalising and eventually labelling pictures.

2) Work on comprehension 

Helping baby to link objects and actions with their word labels is very important at this stage. Comprehension of language provides the basis for later expressive language/ talking.

Games involving labelling and pointing to body parts, pictures in books and familiar objects help with developing comprehension. (You will need to physically help baby to touch objects at first). Labelling actions as you do them is also important (e.g. “clap hands”, “we are clapping”, “wave”, “kiss daddy”, “you’re crawling” etc).

3) Provide communication temptations

(Note: this is to be used with older babies and toddlers only). You are initiating a situation where baby will be highly motivated to initiate communication. Depending on the level you are aiming for, wait for your baby/ toddler to either gesture, vocalise or attempt a word. Some good examples of this are:

* Eating a desirable food item in front of the child without offering any until child gestures or vocalises (a bit mean, but quite motivating!).

* Blow some bubbles, put the lid back on tightly, and hand the bubbles to the child. (This can be used with any toy/ game requiring adult help).

* Initiate a familiar play or daily routine, then change it a bit – wait for child to respond.

* Use unusual/ new sensory experiences (e.g. sticky, cold, wet substances).

 What are your experiences of communicating with babies?

Julie Miller is a Speech Pathologist, wife, mother and blogger. She has worked in private practice, community health and early intervention programs since graduating in 2000. 

Read Julie’s Other Posts

Baby Communication: Newborn to 1

Communication in Children: 12 months to 24 months

Communication in Children: 2-3 years

Communication in Children: 3-4 years

Communication in Children: Development of Speech Sounds: 0-5 years

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    Kelly Be A Fun Mum
    September 16, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    Julie, this is wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us at Be A Fun Mum.

    I have a question. What role does affection play in verbal communication?

    • Reply
      Julie
      September 17, 2010 at 5:16 pm

      Hi Kelly,

      Great question! I don’t know of any specific research in the links between affection and verbal development, however there are plenty of published studies on the links between affection and general brain development in babies. The literature is pretty clear – affection is very important in helping babies to develop along the normal pattern, particularly in the first year of life.

      Communication, particularly in the preverbal stages, is really all about the relationship between baby and the person communicating with him/ her. Observing/ watching and listening to baby, then responding is all part of how babies learn to communicate non-verbally and then verbally too. Of course affectionate communication is all part of this. Thanks for the question.

      • Reply
        Kelly Be A Fun Mum
        September 20, 2010 at 7:03 am

        I love that: Communication is really all about the relationship between baby and the person communication with him. Gorgeous! Thanks for such a great answer Julie.

  • Reply
    Jenny Finch
    September 16, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I am amazed at how much babies understand. From about the time my boys were starting to sit up in their high chair for solid foods, I started introducing some very simple sign language such as “more” and “all done”. By the time they were 12mths they could sign for me if they wanted “more” or they were “all done”, “please” and “thankyou”. My sister uses simple signing with her boys too and her 18 month old is able to communicate most of his needs including “sleep”, “help” and one she sometimes regrets “outside”! 🙂 I still use these signs as a visual reminder on occasions to remind my boys (now 6 & 7) to use their manners! As I said at the start I am amazed at how our babies can communicate when we give them the right tools!

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      September 16, 2010 at 2:41 pm

      @Jenny Finch, I agree Jen, it’s amazing how much babies can communicate. I used signing with my kids too. And I LOVE the idea of giving the slight reminder to the older kids (without actually have to verbalise it). I’ll have to start doing that.

      • Reply
        Julie
        September 17, 2010 at 5:19 pm

        It is really encouraing that so many people are using sign with their babies. It is such a great tool in that “developing intentional communication” stage (9 months+), though of course you can begin to use it earlier too.

        All studies show that rather than delay verbal development (as many parents are worried about), children who use sign tend to talk more quickly and have larger verbal vocaularies.

  • Reply
    katepickle
    September 16, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    This is a great post.. loads of useful information and reminders about things I have forgotten. I particularly like the bit about baby’s communication being ‘pre-intentional’… so often I hear comments like “Oh he’s only crying because he knows it will get to you. ignore him”… not only does that go against what I believe in terms of parenting and responding to my child it also shows how little people understand about babies…. my 12 week old must be a genius if he is intentionally crying just to make me angry!

    • Reply
      Julie
      September 17, 2010 at 5:21 pm

      So true – little babies really are not thinking about how to “get to you” at all. They are responding reflexively to their needs (food, sleep, lack of pain etc).

  • Reply
    Lara from Silk Playground
    September 16, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    This post is awesome. We did a few things to tap into the amazing communication skills babies have: we did elimination communication (worked brilliantly with our daughter, not quite as well with our son, but it’s a work in progress) and we introduced some simple hand signing for very basic things so our bubs could communicate before being able to talk. We just used whatever signs we wanted, using official sign language for ideas. My 14 month old boy is REALLY into this at the moment and loves to sign “more” when he wants more food, when he wants a book read to him again, or when he wants me to keep singing nursery rhymes. It’s magic!

    • Reply
      Julie
      September 17, 2010 at 5:22 pm

      Yep, good point. The signs don’t have to be the “official” ones – any gesture that is consistently linked to a single meaning is a “sign”

  • Reply
    Emma Dennehy
    September 16, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    this is great kel! excellent post

  • Reply
    ickle Kids
    September 17, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Great post. It’s such a special time to be able to communicate with your babies! We used to have “babble” conversations with our boys and loved seeing their reactions.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Kelly Be A Fun Mum
      September 20, 2010 at 7:00 am

      Gorgeous Laine! Isn’t it beautiful to experiment and find what gets a reaction ot of them. Thanks for leaving a comment.

  • Reply
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