How do children learn to talk? And what role do caregivers play?

Infant Directed Speech (IDS)

Also known as “baby talk” or Motherese, this is a universal communication method for talking with infants. Although we may feel silly there is a reason we talk to babies this way!

Characteristics of IDS
  • Raised pitch including frequent use of pitch extremes
  • More regular rhythm
  • Reference to objects in the here and now
  • Long pauses between segments
  • Slowed rate
  • Short and simple utterances
  • Exaggerated facial expressions

Research shows that using IDS holds a child’s attention which helps solidify the bond between caregiver and child.

Infants prefer speech over any other kind of sound, and like IDS over adult speech.

Joint Reference and Attention
Birth to 6 months:
  • Interest in faces
  • Receptive to interpersonal interactions
  • Maintain attention when engaged with other people
6 months to 1 year:
  • Engage in joint attention- attending to the same thing.
  • Combination of gestures and vocalization
  • Perform object-focused activities
1 year and beyond:
  • Use language to communicate intentionally with other people
Daily Routines
  • When children have routines, they develop words and meaning during those times.
  • During daily routines such as bath time, meals, and diaper changes caregivers should provide commentary and talk through the steps using simple language. After time, the words and actions are predictable and the child begins to develop an understanding of what they mean.
Caregiver Responsiveness

These characteristics result in improved rates of language development!

  • Waiting and listening- it takes them longer to register what is going on in their environment. Slow down and wait patiently.
  • Follow the child’s lead- they are more likely to maintain attention and participate
  • Using labels instead of questions- talk about what the child is doing using simple language instead of bombarding them with questions they cannot answer.
  • Encourage turn taking- after playing or taking a turn wait for them to respond.
  • Expand and extend- repeat words the child is saying and add onto the utterance. For example, the child may say “ball” and the adult could expand the utterance by responding “roll ball”.
Before Words

We often think of true communication beginning with a child’s first words. But what happens before that? How do babies get from cooing to saying words?

  • 0-1 month: In a baby’s first month of life everything they do is reflexive. Eating, sleeping, crying and sucking all come without thought or communicative intent.
  • 1-4 months: They begin to make vowel like vocalizations, have distinctive cries, coo, and even start to laugh.
  • 4-6 months: Lots of vocal play, reduplicated babbling emerges (e.g., dadada) in addition to more vowels, and they may learn how to make raspberries.
  • 6-8 months: continued vocal play and reduplicated babbling, few identifiable consonants and vowels, prolonged periods of vocalization.
  • 8-12 months: echolalia (imitation of sounds and words), variegated babbling (e.g., bada), jargon (non-meaningful sounds with adult like intonation).
  • 11-14 months- jargon continues, first words emerging
First Words

First words are a pivotal time in a child’s life. Typically, first words are based on personal importance and the speech sounds they are able to produce. Common syllable shapes include CV (e.g., hi) and CVCV (e.g., wawa). In order for an utterance to be a true first word it needs to meet the following criteria:

  • Purposeful: the word needs to be produced with true purpose. If the child says “ball”, but there is no ball in sight it is likely they are just babbling or imitating a word they heard. But if the child says “wawa” while in the bath, this shows purpose.
  • Recognizable: the word must have a recognizable pronunciation. Babies exhibit lots of vocal play, but until it sounds like a real word it is most likely babbling.
  • Consistent: the word must be used consistently and extend beyond its original context. For example, the child says “mama” while looking at their mom and then says it again when their mom leaves while reaching towards the door.

Written By:
Kimberly Lawless, MS, CCC-SLP
Speech and Langugae Pathologist