How to help young babies develop their communication skills.

Much of a very young baby’s language development is about receptive language, which is their ability to understand language. During the 7 to 12 month stage, parents will notice baby’s expressive language developing more.

New sounds for whānau to copy

Baby will be letting their parents know what they need or want. They’ll be communicating using a mixture of sounds, gestures and facial expressions. Baby will be making consonant and vowel sound combinations such as ‘ba’, ‘ma’, ‘na’, ‘pa’ or ‘da’. Encourage this by copying the sounds baby makes back to them. This lets them know they’re being heard, and models the pattern for having a conversation.

Body language and babbling

Along with sounds they’ll also be using gestures, where they’ll use arms and hands to point, wave and clap. They might use the palm up ‘give me’ gesture, or lift their arms to show they want to be picked up. They may use facial expressions too, to show how they’re feeling. Soon baby will repeat single sounds like ‘ba’ or ‘da’, to make ‘baba’ or ‘dada’ – this is called ‘babbling’. It’s a big achievement, and parents can encourage more of it by copying it back to baby. A baby may combine babbling with gestures and facial expressions to indicate something. If parents understand what baby is trying to say, they can reply – ‘Oh, you want your …?’ This lets baby know they’ve been heard and understood, and encourages more communication.

Mimicking the language of their whānau

Baby will also begin to mix the consonants and vowel sounds together in longer ‘utterances’ such as ‘babanada’. These will begin to rise and fall in tone so they sound like real speech. Recognisable words may also be embedded in their babble – a real sign that they’re on the way to speaking the language of their whānau.

How a baby learns to communicate is the same in whatever language/s they’re learning to speak. It’s about what they’re hearing spoken to them and around them, and it works best if whānau speak the language they’re most fluent in to baby. Baby’s brain will make separate pathways for each language.

Beginning to say words

Baby may start to use sounds that sound like a word – or the start of a word – from their home language. If they speak English, for example, they might say, ‘ca’ for ‘cat’. If they speak te reo Māori, they might use ‘pō’ for ‘pōtae’. The best way to encourage them is by repeating back the word that parents think baby’s trying to say, and watching baby’s reaction to see if they got it right. This requires careful observation from whānau to see what baby is looking at when they are trying to say their words.

Whānau can support and encourage baby further when they respond without correcting baby. For example, they could say, “Yes, that’s your green hat”, or ‘Āe, tōu pōtae kakariki tēnā’ This affirms to baby that they’ve been understood, and models more words to them in the process. This technique is called ‘stretch talk’, which uses the word baby has said (or tried to say), and adds more words to it.

Reading, singing and saying rhymes together every day is another easy and enjoyable way to encourage communication.