Babies Brains

Talking with your baby

Alison Sutton

Founder of Talking Matters

Science tells us parents used to do the right thing instinctively – sing to baby, read to them, constantly stay close together in an environment where interaction and language were purely instinctual and very natural. This was very important to baby and laid down the foundation for them to develop their own language skills.

Changes to modern family structures mean that some children are missing out. Many families live away from their extended wha-nau in big cities with fewer opportunities to mix with others. Screen time can eat into interaction time, families are under more pressure and the stresses pile up. Sometimes busy adults end up talking to, not with, their tamariki.

Most families are keen to support their children’s learning but don’t always know the speed at which babies learn; nor do they fully understand the power of language to shape their little ones’ lives and future opportunities.

Even among experts, the value of home languages in building communication and literacy is not always acknowledged – and it is increasingly important as more families are culturally and ethnically diverse.

Oral language is the basis for reading and writing, yet there has been less focus on oral language in policy, funding and professional development.

Does talking really matter?

Absolutely! The research is clear. We know that children’s early experiences shape their overall development and ability to learn. The first 1,000 days are particularly important for building the capacity to love, learn, think and communicate.

Interaction and talk help shape a child’s brain and influence their social, emotional and intellectual capabilities throughout their lives. Talk is important in whatever languages families use – it doesn’t have to be English. For babies and toddlers, the language (or languages) of their family matters most of all.

It’s never too early to start

Talk is free and every family does it – and every family is capable of gifting even more language to their tamariki. Quite simply, if you want your child to be smart – talk to them!

You can’t start too early. Before your pe-pi can speak, learn to watch them carefully – they are communicating with you by facial gestures, cries, and non-verbal sounds. If you talk to your baby, sing to them, chat out loud, then language will surround them, and they will be soaking it up.

It is important to notice and respond to your tamariki – follow their lead and talk about the things that interest them. For example, if your child loves playing with trucks, sit next to them on the floor and talk with them. Talk about the big yellow truck with six wheels. Ask who will be driving it, where it will go, what it will pick up, etc. In this way you will extend their language and vocabulary. You are, in fact, directing what they learn.

I believe the key is to be intentional and to aim high. Children are learning faster and are capable of so much more than many of us expect. Take part in to-and-fro talking, singing, storytelling – talk-accompanied playing and doing are all critically important if a child’s thinking and language are to flourish.

Different families and communities will have a range of approaches that fit their language, culture, values and circumstances. It is important to speak to them in their heritage language. If possible, introduce a second language to your little one. Studies show that bilingual babies have bigger brains – they will be at an advantage as they grow if they can speak and understand more than one language.

If you want to tune in to your tamariki – start with what holds their interest and follow their lead. Talk more often – talk with them for longer and encourage them to talk to you; describe everyday things and everyday objects. Chat to them about what you and they are doing. Every moment is potentially a talking moment.

Top tips for a language-rich home

Gift your tamariki ‘juicy’ new words – expand on the words they know. If the word seems too hard, use it and explain, rather than avoid it. For example, instead of saying “look at that big truck” try using words like “enormous”, “gigantic” or “massive” instead.

Encourage your child to talk and take turns – back-and-forth conversations make a big difference and help your child to feel as though their opinions are valued. To really develop their brains, children have to participate and contribute as well as listen. Even when babies aren’t forming words, they will ‘talk’ to you in their own language; give them the time to make their noises to you, then respond to them. You’ll soon notice how excited they get that they’ve been listened to and feel connected.

Ask fewer questions – questions don’t add knowledge. Gift additional words to build children’s understanding of ideas and concepts. It is great to get in the habit of using open questions; you’ll find this will be a useful tool as they get older when you want their answer to be more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, rather than “Did you have a good day playing with Daddy?”, change it to “What did you and Daddy do together today?”

Talk to them – praise their efforts and learn to relate to their interests; expand and talk everywhere. This is simple, free and easy. You have the power to make a real difference.

Read books every day – the language in books is different from everyday conversation and expands their understanding of the world. It is never too early to read to babies. Books also help build the bond between child and reader and help the child get ready for reading when they are older.

Sign songs and waiata – whether it is a lullaby to soothe a fussy baby or a lively action song with enthusiastic toddlers, surround your children with song. It will help to teach vocabulary and communication skills. And it is fun!

Limit digital media – don’t let the TV or smart device become a babysitter. No device can substitute for human interaction.


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