Miss A is nearly 18 months and has started putting words together like “Where’s the book?” and “Mama, milk please!” Encouraging her speech skills has been a real conscious effort for V and I. Miss A is very loud and active in nature and also gets very frustrated easily. We want to give her the tools to communicate to us early on so we can avoid as many meltdowns as possible! These are 5 things we’ve done to encourage her learning.
1. Baby sign language
Babies understand words long before they are able to verbalize it. Teaching them baby sign language allows them to communicate earlier as their motor skills develop before speech. Helpful words are those such as milk, eat, water, toilet, up, down etc. You can download iPhone apps that teach them to you. We went with an app called “Baby Sign” which teaches Auslan. For American sign language, I think “Smart Hands” is a good one.
You can start signing to them around 6 months, or even from birth. Some babies are able to sign back simple signs like “milk” at 6 months, but generally most develop the ability to sign back at about 8-10 months. In our case, we started doing signs like “milk” from birth, but Miss A did not sign back until she was about a year old.
Generally, baby sign language reduces frustration for both parent and child as baby is able to convey what he or she needs early on. It allows Miss A to “say” difficult words she is still unable to pronounce even now, like “helicopter” (one of her favourite things thanks to Daddy).
Some people worry that learning sign language will hinder speech development, but this is not the case. If you’re speaking to them, they will naturally start saying the word as well as sign it. Miss A started signing for milk at about 1, and now says the word as well as signs it. If anything, it helps encourage speech as it turns on the language center in their brain. When they start talking, they also do not pronounce words properly and signing will help you understand them.
2. Talk to them like an adult
From birth, we have talked to Miss A as if she understands everything. We don’t simplify anything just because she is a baby. Although it may feel a bit strange talking to a baby when you know he/she probably hasn’t got a clue what you are rattling on about, it is important as even as a newborn they are picking up on intonation and learning what language sounds like. Asking them questions and giving them a chance to “talk” back allows them to learn about dialogue and the nature of taking turns to speak. If you need to pop out of the room for 5 seconds, do not just disappear but tell them you’ll be leaving and will be back shortly. If they are a toddler who refuses to be dragged away from a playground, give them a countdown e.g “We are leaving in 2 minutes to go home” even if you think they have no concept of time. You will really be surprised how much they are actually able to understand very early on.
Now that Miss A is at a speaking age, we have also been making an extra effort to use the correct names for everything and resist the urge to mimic her baby talk. It is surprisingly easy to start calling a banana a “nana” when your baby refers to it as such, but you have to remember that although they are saying “nana”, they know in their head it’s a banana. If you keep using the correct names, they will come round to it very quickly as their speech ability develops. It is also common for parents to give cutesy names to private parts, but I think it’s important to use correct anatomical names so they learn it’s just a normal part of their body and there is nothing taboo or embarrassing about it.
3. Narrate everything
We narrate absolutely everything to Miss A. Whether it is nappy changing or we’re going out, we tell her exactly what is happening or what is about to happen. When they’re really young, it feels a bit silly, as if you’re talking to yourself, but as they grow, it opens up a wonderful world of words and it feels great when they start repeating things after you.
4. Give them the power
Miss A gets frustrated easily and often starts screaming if she can’t do something or doesn’t want to do something. It can be easy for us to get really frustrated too and tell her off in a really negative manner, but I have to remind myself that at this point, screaming is her way of communicating and she doesn’t have the tools to convey how she feels to us. So in those situations, we try to teach her what to do/say by calmly saying things like, “Do you need help? Just say “Mummy, help me!”. We also do ask her a lot to tell us what she wants or point it out if it’s an object in sight.
I know the Asian way of parenting is to tell off your kids without reason or make them obey you without giving them a choice, but I think it’s important for a child to feel valued and for them to learn to make decisions for themselves and how to control their emotions. It is not the same as spoiling a child and giving them everything they want. If Miss A wants something she cannot have, then obviously she cannot have it, but I will also explain why this is the case. I don’t want my children to blindly obey me. I want them to understand why they can’t have something or do something so that they can learn how to make good decisions in life.
5. Read and sing
This is a pretty obvious one. Reading books out loud to your baby from birth is an important step in encouraging language skills. Singing songs and nursery rhymes are great too. We go to our local library and borrow a whole bunch of books every 3 weeks. We don’t buy books unless we know it is something she will absolutely love and not lose interest in after a few weeks.
I have to admit though, despite all the expert advice to avoid TV completely below the age of 2-3 years, I do not find TV to be the enemy. I think it is only the enemy if you chuck them in front of it all day and do not do any other face-to-face activities otherwise, and when you let them watch fast-paced cartoons that have no educational value and are not appropriate for their age. To me, TV is the lifesaver when you are totally exhausted from reading books and engaging in creative play. Sometimes, Mummy just needs a break lest she goes totally mad!
We do let Miss A watch programs like Playschool and she has actually learned a shocking amount from it. She is quite engaged when she watches it and follows the actions to the songs and yells out things that she sees e.g windows. It has also given us lots of ideas of what to do with her. Everything in moderation, I say.