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Early childhood communication

NEW GERMANY - HOW do we teach communication skills to our children when much of our interaction with them is non-verbal? In fact, these non-verbal interactions coupled with our spoken words form the basis of spoken language. Since communication is so important to social success, words (and outlook) are the most important gift we can give our children. Through them our children will learn proper timing and appropriate ways to communicate and express themselves.

Marquise Sopher, a Speech-Language Pathologist joined Public Health Nurse Susie Wood for one of the semi-monthly Busy Babies programs held in New Germany. Fourteen children from the ages of two weeks to three years joined 13 adults including one father and two grandmothers for an energetic, youthful and informative two-hour session geared toward keeping the little ones happy and occupied as the parents and grandparents received valuable information and reinforcement regarding the teaching and learning of communications skills with their babies.

There is so much more to communicating than words alone. Talking is a big part of it but without facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, and gestures much can be lost in the translation. The same word can mean two or more things. The word "no" spoken sharply and suddenly with stern eye contact can relay an urgent command. The same word preceded by "umm", a glance upward and spoken with a tilted head and furrowed brow can mean, "I don't think so." In this same way babies communicate volumes to us through their facial expressions, pointing, posturing, gestures, tantrums and crying. In fact ALL behavior can be seen as forms of communication. Crying is a good example of early communication and since it can mean a multitude of things it can play an integral role in teaching and learning early communication. Crying can signify "I'm hungry", "I'm tired", "My diaper is dirty", "I'm bored" or "I'm in pain", and it doesn't take long to learn the differences between these diverse cries for help. Even at a few weeks old a baby is quite capable of getting all of these feelings across to caregivers and as we respond to each of these expressions we are actually reinforcing 'language'. By trial and error we learn what baby needs and in turn baby is learning to express themselves in more definitive terms. As we learn to recognize the hungry cry for instance, and say, "Are you hungry?" baby will associate the word "hungry" with the feelings of hunger and the process of learning words has begun.

At around two months of age the infant will start gooing and making eye contact. Watch for a quiet but alert baby. This is the best time for play since the child is most responsive and open to absorbing subtle language cues from you. Six to nine months of age will see the child babbling. The repeated "ma ma ma" and "da da da" at this age are not actually baby's first words but building blocks that caregivers can use to help build a vocabulary. As baby babbles "ma ma ma" and mother comes and says, "Mama's here," baby gains understanding of her babble and learns very quickly that it brings a desired response. This process of understanding words will continue for about 12 months before baby actually speaks his first words.

By 13 months the jargon begins. This is the delightful habit of long "sentences" of mostly non-understandable "words" punctuated by the few "real words" that baby has learned.

There is much tongue control involved in forming words so don't expect clear speech to emerge until between two-and-a-half to three years of age, once memory and motor control are refined.

Talk to your baby often; verbalize what you are doing and read to him. Singing is also important even if you hit more flat notes than not as it teaches rhythm in speech. Ask questions that are open ended rather than questions that require a simple yes or no answer. As you interact with your child remember to pause for a response. The child is still learning and it may take some time to formulate meaning and response. A count of ten is a good guideline. All of these activities build pathways in the brain. At around two to two-and-a-half years of age your child should experience a word explosion when all of these pathways finally link up and a new understanding of communication is achieved. Above all, enjoy the process. You are laying the corner stones of a lifetime of communication with your child.

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