The Best Ways to Promote Speech Development in Your Infant and Toddler

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Speech Development Infant Toddler

After a year or so of only hearing cries or babbling from their baby, parents are thrilled when their child finally talks. Yet some children have significant speech delay, and may need speech therapy to get them to talk. While there is no absolute guarantee that a single intervention will get your child to talk on time, the following tips have been proven to be helpful in promoting speech development during the infant and toddler years.

  1. Converse: For parents of infants and toddlers, the most significant step you can take to promote language development is to have frequent conversations with your child. This may seem obvious, but it can’t be overstated. Total number of words heard, being read to, and hearing others talk are all important, but studies have shown that having a conversation with a child is more important than anything else in promoting speech.1,2

Conversations teach the child the “give-and-take” of speech, even at a young age, when all they can do is babble. So even when your child can’t respond to your questions or comments coherently, ask her questions and respond to her babbling. They learn from such “conversations.”

  1. Model speech: Be a good speech model for your child. Children need to hear speech in order to imitate speech. Don’t revert to “baby talk” by imitating your child’s speech. For example, don’t call a bottle a “baba,” which does not help the child hear or learn the correct pronunciation of words.3
  2. Parallel talk: Talk about what the child is doing or interested in. ”You are building a big tower. You stacked 5 blocks! Uh oh, one fell down.”3-5
  3. Imitate: Young children love to imitate. You can start by imitating what your child already does, like making faces or animal sounds. Then progress to imitate sounds from her environment (like “beep beep” or “zoom”) or imitate new gestures by singing songs like “The Wheels on the Bus.”3
  4. Sign: Teach your child basic signs for concepts such as “more,” “drink,” “sleep,” and “thank you.” Using non-verbal communication like signs actually will enhance their verbal skills.5
  5. Sing: singing is a good way to introduce new words, use gestures to accompany language, and is a fun way to promote speech.5
  6. Read: Make sure you read to your child every day. Read them storybooks, the newspaper, magazine articles, whatever: when reading printed material, even children’s books, you use a much wider vocabulary and syntax, which helps the child’s language development. 4,5

As your infant becomes a toddler, read interactively: ask her questions about what’s happening on the page or in the story. “How many dogs are on this page? Let’s count them.” Studies have shown that when parents spend more time reading to their children and make it more interactive, the children have significantly higher language attainment.6

  1. DON’T turn on the TV or other screens: There is no benefit to watching TV or other screens for children less than 18 months. And for those older than that, keep the screen time to a minimum. Even so-called “educational” programming (like Baby Einstein™) does not promote speech development at a young age.

Multiple studies have shown a negative effect of television on child speech, partly because children learn language much better from a live person than from a recording.1,2,7 One study actually quantified it: for every hour of television watched, children were exposed to 770 fewer words, or about 7% of their daily total.7

  1. Acknowledge emotions: Children often have very intense feelings, but don’t know how to express themselves. Acknowledge those feelings, and help your child verbalize them. “I know you are scared of the dark, and that’s normal. Help me think of some ways to make it less scary for you.”4
  2. Keep instructions simple and age appropriate: It helps in general to use lots of words and more sophisticated words, but when giving instructions, remember that young children can only remember so much. A 1 year-old can follow one-step directions (“Go get your coat”), and an 18 month-old can follow two-step directions (“Go in your room and get your coat”). For older children, ask them to repeat the directions to ensure that they heard and understand them.4
  3. Talk to the fetus: For those of you who are pregnant, it’s never too early to start promoting speech development in your still gestating child. Several studies show that a fetus can recognize her mother’s voice and that maternal speech prenatally may help develop postnatal speech.8-10

Sources:

  1. Zimmerman FJ, Gilkerson J, Richards JA, et al. Teaching by listening: the importance of adult-child conversations to language development. Pediatrics. 2009 Jul;124 (1):342-9.
  2. Kuhl PK. Early language acquisition: cracking the speech code. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2004 Nov;5 (11):831-43.
  3. Personal communication with speech therapists from Westside Children’s Therapy, Wheaton IL. Encouraging Expressive and Receptive Language Skills at Home; 2018.
  4. How to Support Your Child’s Communication Skills. 2016. (Accessed February 23, 2018, at https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/302-how-to-support-your-childs-communication-skills.)
  5. 10 Ways to Promote the Language and Communication Skills of Infants and Toddlers. 2018. (Accessed February 23, 2018, at http://mtbt.fpg.unc.edu/more-baby-talk/10-ways-promote-language-and-communication-skills-infants-and-toddlers.)
  6. Brown MI, Westerveld MF, Trembath D, Gillon GT. Promoting language and social communication development in babies through an early storybook reading intervention. Int J Speech Lang Pathol. 2017 Dec 15:1-13.
  7. Christakis DA, Gilkerson J, Richards JA, et al. Audible television and decreased adult words, infant vocalizations, and conversational turns: a population-based study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009 Jun;163 (6):554-8.
  8. Kisilevsky BS, Hains SM, Lee K, et al. Effects of experience on fetal voice recognition. Psychol Sci. 2003 May;14 (3):220-4.
  9. Krueger CA, Cave EC, Garvan C. Fetal response to live and recorded maternal speech. Biol Res Nurs. 2015 Jan;17 (1):112-20.
  10. Ferrari GA, Nicolini Y, Demuru E, et al. Ultrasonographic Investigation of Human Fetus Responses to Maternal Communicative and Non-communicative Stimuli. Front Psychol. 2016;7:354.
Ruben Rucoba
Dr. Rucoba has over 25 years of experience as a primary care pediatrician after completing medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. His clinical areas of expertise include caring for children with special health care needs and assisting families with international adoption. He has been a freelance medical writer since 2010, writing for health websites, continuing medical education providers, and various print outlets. He currently works at Wheaton Pediatrics in the suburbs of Chicago, where he lives with his wife and four daughters, including a set of twins.

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