We’ve all heard that it takes a village to raise a child. This has definitely rung true with my son. I know I couldn’t confidently handle his journey with hearing loss without the support and guidance of his audiologist, speech language pathologist, and listening & spoken language specialist. One thing they have all told me, however, is that their work isn’t what makes the greatest impact. Each professional has confirmed that while their role in my son’s language development is important, mine as his parent is paramount.
Turns out they weren’t just flattering me; research actually confirms this. Early language environment has been found to affect the future learning trajectory of a child more than any other contributing factor. How you talk to your kids and how much you talk to them is the game changer. I am hyper-aware of this as the parent of a child who wears hearing technology. As amazing as his cochlear implants are, my son will not overhear new words the same way my daughter will. I have to be very purposeful in exposing him to enough language. That being said, even if your child has typical hearing and speech development, this is still extremely important. You create your child’s early language environment. That’s a fancy way to say that your presence makes a difference. How much you talk, read, and sing to your child matters. A lot.
Unfortunately, I think that most of us feel as if we can’t add one more thing to our plate. Rest assured that this is more about doing things with intention than it is about adding more stuff to your life. Over the last three years I’ve learned a lot about maximizing talk time with my kids. Hopefully these tips help you find ways to foster language development and not go crazy.
You may not have time for a pretty, organized language development activity from Pinterest, but you are definitely going to make sure you change your kid’s diaper. What else happens without fail each day? Chores? Work? Brushing your teeth? Believe it or not, parents who talk as they go about their daily activities expose kids to 1000-2000 words every hour. A therapist once told me to imagine I’m a sportscaster relaying the action to my baby. Now I’m getting out the diaper and laying it on the table. Next I’ll open the box of wipes. You can also describe objects that are part of the routine. Let’s take off your diaper. It is squishy and wet! This new diaper is soft and dry. Child-focused routines like changing a diaper, taking a bath, and buckling the car seat are also perfect for singing. A nursery rhyme or even a made up song that goes with the routine works wonders.
Meal times are that magical opportunity to interact with your child when they are both seated and occupied (if you’re lucky enough to still be in the high chair phase, they’re also restrained). Take advantage! You can describe your food–its texture, whether the taste is sweet or salty, if the temperature is hot or cold, or how many pieces of food are on the plate. You can share the highs and lows of your day (I love this Rose & Thorn routine suggested by former contributor Danielle). You can ask questions. My three-year-old is working on yes/no questions so right now we have a small stack of simple yes/no questions on the table. Bottom line: meal time is talking time.
I will admit that there have been moments when narrating my actions or describing my food felt too hard. Life happens; we get tired, stressed, and depleted. In those moments, I am especially grateful for books. It’s a way to provide language that requires little from me other than my reading voice. Granted, reading to babies and toddlers can be…different. When my son would randomly flip pages or try to eat the corner of the book, I’d just start talking about the pictures we could see or his own silly actions. Still language and still valuable. If including books in your routine is a struggle, throw one in at dinner, before bed, and anytime you are waiting (doctor’s office, curbside pick up, etc). Research has shown that parents who read one picture book with their children every day expose them to an estimated 78,000 words each year.
As much as I love the idea of creating a language-rich environment through already-existing routines, sometimes it feels productive to have dedicated time. If your schedule is jam-packed, do not fret. Carve out one manageable block of intentional play time. Fifteen minutes of you playing on the floor with your baby is a gold mine of language exposure. Brownie points if you do an activity that requires turn-taking as this fosters conversational skills. Take turns rolling a ball, shaking a rattle, or tapping the floor. For toddlers, you might go back and forth pushing a car or rocking a doll. It doesn’t really matter what you do, just be sure to talk as you do it.
Talking seems like a simple task, but in our world of crowded calendars and handheld technology it easily gets lost. I know I need the constant reminder of how important it is. The good news is that we can make the most of the moments we have with our children. With a little more intention and a lot more talking.