Holding a conversation with your baby

Grandmother and child, image by Paul Watt
Category: Bookbug

Babies are born ready to have a conversation. When they come into the world they already know the sound of their mother’s voice and they’ve heard the steady beat of her heart.

They might have a favourite tune from the daily playing of a TV or radio show, or from hearing whatever music mum or dad have been playing every day.

Rhythm and music are good words to capture the to and fro turn-taking of conversation and the up and down sounds of voices, particularly the voices we use to talk to babies and very young children.

The rhythm of turn taking

Mums, dads, grannies and grandads can fill songs with the drama of a story

When you talk to a baby, they look at you, and you look at them. One of you makes a sound, it might be you smiling and saying hello in a slow up-and-down sliding voice, or the baby might gurgle or babble at you. You listen and reply. The baby watches, listens and replies. And off you go, the conversation has begun!

Some new parents find it easy to tune in to their baby and the conversation that started at birth keeps going. Parents listen to what their child is telling them - whether with words, with their bodies or with their voices. They sing rhyming songs because they can see their child enjoys them and they enjoy them too.

Mums, dads, grannies and grandads can give tickling games like ‘Roon aboot, roon aboot goes the wee moose!’ all the drama of a story. There’s a beginning, there’s excitement and uncertainty in the middle and then there’s a happy ending and a cuddle.

But some people find it harder to tune in to babies and young children. Perhaps they weren’t listened to when they were young. Perhaps they just aren’t aware of how important that early conversation is. They might not know that talking, singing, cuddling and storytelling is building babies’ brains.

Those early songs, cuddles, stories and conversations make connections in children’s brains that link love, pride, and self-worth with words, with talking, with rhythms and rhymes. Without these positive connections, talking and, later, reading and writing will be difficult.

At first babies and young children will use their whole body to communicate what they want to say, but later they’ll learn that words hold the most power

At first babies and young children will use their whole body to communicate what they want to say, but later they’ll learn that words hold the most power. They’ll tune in to those special adults around them so they can better work out how to speak that language, and they’ll test out those sounds, and touch the mouths of those who are talking and listening to them, the better to understand and practise how to move their own mouths in the same way.

Keep the conversation going

The best way, then, to support the speech and language of your child is to keep that conversation going.

You can help your child develop the words they need by giving them the best chance of hearing and practising them. When you and your child sing to each other the repeated actions of 'Incy Wincy Spider' or 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat,' your whole bodies are communicating and coordinating, while little eyes get to watch the shape of mouths making words again and again. Words and rhymes gain special attention when you move your hands or rock to the rhythm of a song.

By listening to your child and valuing their conversation, you’ll ensure they want to continue talking. When sharing a book or a song comes to mean sharing a cuddle and laughing together, then talking and listening mean comfort and fun. And who wants to miss out on that?

Scottish Book Trust's Early Years team talked to childminders about young children’s speech and language development at Scottish Childminding Association’s network meetings at the end of 2014. A version of this blog appears in Scottish Childminding Association’s winter magazine.

Sarah Burton

Sarah is the Early Years Programme Development Manager (Maternity cover).