How to help children become great communicators

From Nine To Noon, 11:25 am on 26 May 2022

Engaging with a baby in their first three years of life can help set them up with communication skills, says speech-language therapist Emma Quigan.

Once you trust that very young children are learning from every interaction, you see time spent with them as a significant opportunity, she tells Kathryn Ryan.

"Every baby is born with mana. It's not something they earn - they have it. And if we trust our babies, we're seeing their humanity. We're seeing them as a person with likes and dislikes… not someone who needs to be built up with knowledge. It's already there and we're walking alongside them to help it unfurl and providing opportunities."


A photograph of Emms Quigan

 Emma Quigan Photo: Supplied

Emma Quigan (Ngāi Tahu) is co-president of the Speech and Language Therapists' Association and co-founder of the education campaign Talking Matters.

When she and literacy advocate Alison Sutton first set up Talking Matters, it felt like news to people just how much a baby learns about communication in their first 1,000 days, she says.

Now we know babies are working hard to make sense of the world and every moment with them is an opportunity to support that discovery.

"A day's work for a baby - playing, looking around at things, singing songs - is probably equivalent to the hardest day's work we as adults will ever have in our lives. When you think about what's happening to them on a minute level, it's actually meaning something for how their brain is growing. Every time they look at a book it's actually growing new brain cells."

With small babies, communication appears in the form of subtle cues, Emma says. A baby's eye gaze tells us what they are and are not interested in.

"If we start to look at the cues babies give us, they'll tell us when they need a break, as well. You know when a baby looks away for a moment that's them saying 'i'm going to take five. That's too much'.

"We can respond to [whatever a baby is looking at] by describing it, by bringing it over them and starting to interact with their interests."

At about 9 months of age, babies may start pointing at things, Emma says.

People often ask what the right thing to say in response is, but simple acknowledgement of their communication is the most important thing,

Pointing is one way a baby invites other people into their world.

Acknowledge this bid just like you'd acknowledge a fellow adult who points something out, she says.

Via pointing, eye contact, babbling and perhaps giggling, babies use the skills they have at their disposal to communicate. In response, make use of the skills you've got to maybe laugh back, join in the pointing and describe the object they're pointing at.

At around 9 months, babies might often start passing objects to other people, and even receiving a screwed-up cracker can be an opportunity for shared communication, Emma says.

"Take a moment to describe that cracker, say thank you, talk about what they're eating. [By doing this] we're acknowledging that that baby has said 'do you want a bite?' or 'look what I've got'. That is their way of communicating."

It's not only mothers who benefit from learning how to best communicate with babies and teaching communication skills is too much for just one person to pull off, she says.

Family members, friends and even strangers can help provide babies with encouragement via interaction.

"If you're at the supermarket and a baby is engaging you, go ahead, it'll give their parents a break and you're sending a message to that child that they are welcome and they are noticed. And what better message could we be sending to our children?"

Parents hear a lot about the importance of reading to and with their children, but it's not always realistic to expect a very young child to sit still on a lap and consume a story, Emma says.

Simply spending 30 seconds opening and closing a book and providing some commentary while the baby turns a few pages is a good start, she says, and every small interaction with a book adds up.

"Perhaps you won't get through the book and don't feel that you need to."

While talking, gesturing and singing all support a baby's communication skills, don't feel you have to sing Old Macdonald if you're not feeling it.

Singing along to music you actually like and sharing that with your baby will probably have more impact than faking enthusiasm for a nursery rhyme, Emma says.

"If you share a song with love, because you love it and you're enjoying it, your kids are far more likely to engage with it…

"Babies can tell if you don't want to be there or don't want to be doing something, from a very young age.

"You being there 'cause you want to be there, saying things you want to say, will make more of a difference."

You can find educational resources from Talking Matters here.

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