From the moment they enter the world, babies’ brains are ready for learning. Fostering a language-rich environment in their first years builds the foundation for lifelong language and communication skills.
Did you know that your baby is born with more than 85 billion neurons in their brain? And in their first year, their brain goes through an astonishing transformation as the number of synapses (connections) grows exponentially. By the age of 3, the number of synapses per neuron has increased from ~2,500 to 15,000. These early years are the time in your baby’s life that they are most ready to absorb and learn about the world around them.
Many studies have shown that infants are born with the ability to discriminate between all speech sounds, regardless of language1. By 12 months, however, they undergo a perceptual reorganization, making them less capable of discerning non-native speech sounds while becoming more adept at recognizing those of their native language. This is a crucial period when your baby’s brain is fine-tuning its language skills.
Studies have also highlighted the importance of early social interaction, especially for babies who spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Initiatives focused on increasing family involvement and interaction during the early weeks and months have proven to significantly reduce the risk of social communication and language challenges later in life.
Encouraging multimodal communication, which combines verbal expression with symbolic gestures, during your baby's first year can have a lasting impact. Research shows that children taught both verbal and sign language outperform those taught just verbal communication, even at 24-month follow-ups.
Parents and caregivers play a pivotal role in nurturing their child’s communication abilities, and it starts by creating a language-rich environment for your growing baby.
When it comes to creating the right conditions for your child to develop their language and communication skills, here are some practical tips you can try out in your daily routines:
Make book reading a part of your baby’s bedtime routine. This is a great way to wind down while providing a language-rich environment and building interest and familiarity with books (an important factor in early literacy!).
Getting dressed can also become a language-rich routine. Talk to your baby about what you are doing, and discuss the nouns, verbs, and prepositions involved.
When you are doing laundry or other household chores, use the opportunity to model language for your baby. You can even create your own songs to sing while you work together.
Often, it can be frustrating for young children when they can’t communicate their needs (especially as their verbal language skills are still developing). The use of sign language provides babies with earlier access to language. It’s been shown to support speech and language development in hearing babies, with one study finding that hearing children whose parents encouraged the use of signs outperformed children whose parents encouraged verbal language only.
Baby signs are a great tool to support early communication skills and can be used with both hearing and hard-of-hearing children to help them communicate their wants and needs. This helps you to be more responsive to their needs and can even help your child begin to regulate their emotions during stressful times.
A question that often comes up is how much screen time is too much. For kids under two, there is clear evidence around limiting screen time. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that children under the age of two not be exposed to screen time.
Despite what makers of video “teaching tools” might want you to believe, growing children learn better from face-to-face interactions with people. One study of 1,000 children under 24 months did not find any benefits to viewing infant learning programs. Another study found that for each hour of baby DVDs that infants watched, they spoke an average of 6-8 fewer words.
We understand that sometimes a screen can come in handy if you need a moment to prep dinner or pack tomorrow’s lunch, but this is a reminder to be cautious of screen time for growing babies. Even if the TV is just on in the background, it can have an impact on babies’ language development. On average, children 8-24 months of age are exposed to 5.5 hours of background TV a day. This is ~45-68% of their waking hours. Background TV has been found to result in a decrease in both the quality and quantity of parent language, which impacts your child’s learning, language, and communication skills.
If you have questions or concerns about your child's language development, it's important to seek help early on. Early intervention can make a significant difference.
At Sprout, we offer Speech and Language assessments, and our SLP is a wonderful resource for families. You can also schedule a hearing screen or a developmental milestone check with our team.
Remember that every child develops at their own pace, so don't be too alarmed if your baby doesn't meet every milestone right on schedule. However, if you notice several unmet milestones, seeking professional guidance is an important and proactive step.