talking to your baby

6 Things You Are Doing Wrong When Talking to Your Baby or Toddler

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Do you want your little one to start talking more? It’s as easy as setting them up for success with how you interact with them. And it really is quite simple! However, you have to be conscious of the way you are talking to your baby or toddler as you go throughout your day. There are some simple changes you can make in the way you talk to your little person that will have a huge impact!

Why should I talk to my baby?

  • Talking to your baby creates a bond between caregiver and child.
  • Your voice can be a source of comfort for your baby. Try talking, singing, or just cooing to help your baby feel better.
  • Children mimic your language, so if you are talkative, they are more likely to be talkative.
  • Meaningful time spent together between parent and child in the early years correlates with many beneficial outcomes throughout a person’s life.
  • Having positive interaction when you talk with your baby can help build secure attachment.

And here are a few super cool, nerdy facts that blow my mind when I think about baby brains.

80% of the brain’s physical development happens in the first three years of life! (Check out this source from WebMD that goes into more detail).

About one million neural connections (brain connections) are formed every second in the first few years of life. Thus, better input will result in a stronger connection in the brain. Check out this amazing article by Harvard University about other important factors in early childhood.

Does talking to my baby really help?

The short answer is YES! Yes, yes yes, talking to your baby has tons of positive outcomes! The more you talk to your baby, the better their outcomes. Let’s get specific about the benefits when babies and toddlers (specifically ages 0-3) hear more words from their parents.

  • Overall higher IQs
  • Better academic success
  • Higher language ability
  • Increased vocabulary
  • Better reading skills

Below is a list of six things you are doing wrong when you talk to the smallest people in your life. As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I’ve worked with lots of families with littles. The list below includes the six biggest mistakes most adults are making.

1. Not talking to your baby enough

One of the most beneficial things you can do to help your baby learn how to talk is narrating your day.

When talking to your baby, tell them about what you are doing as you do it. For instance, when you are at the grocery store say something like, “I’m picking out a yellow banana. It will be so yummy to eat for lunch tomorrow.” By talking about what you are doing while you are doing it, your baby will make connections between words and objects or ideas.

Best practice is to narrate your day and talk to your baby as much as possible. Sometimes you should do this in full sentences, and sometimes it’s helpful to use short phrases or single words to teach new words. (For more details on this, see point #2).

You might be thinking something like, “Why would I talk to my baby? She clearly doesn’t understand anything I’m saying. She can’t even talk yet!” But nothing could be further from the truth! Your baby needs to hear you talk a bunch before he will start talking back. It’s kind of like if you have ever tried learning another language. You have to hear a word several times before saying it or using it correctly in a sentence. It’s the same for babies!

If you want more tips to help your baby to learn to talk, check out my post here.

talking to your baby

2. Not using the right sentence length.

Babies and toddlers benefit from a variety of sentence lengths when you talk and interact with them. The key is not talking in incredibly long-winded paragraphs all the time. It’s equally important to avoid exclusively using one or two-word phrases as you talk with your little one.

As I mentioned in the first point, using narration throughout your day is a great way to introduce tons of new vocabulary to your child on a consistent basis. During this kind of interaction, it’s great to use full sentences with good grammar and varied vocabulary.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly appropriate to use short phrases with your baby or toddler sometimes, too. When playing with your child you can talk about the toys you are using by labeling them with a single word. So if you’re playing with a bear, you can say “bear” a few times while you are holding it or feeding it. If you’re playing with blocks, you can do the same thing. Say, “blocks” and then you might add “block tower” as you build a tower. This gives them a clear connection between the word and the object.

Using full sentences helps your child hear and learn correct grammatical structure. Additionally, your child will pick up on the words you use over time. When you use short phrases or single words your baby or toddler will be more likely to model and repeat what you are saying. That is why blending your sentence length is so important.

3. Predicting all of their needs.

As a great, in-tune caregiver, you are probably so aware of your child’s needs that you might be helping your little one too much! Parents have an insane ability to understand what your child needs by a look, a point, or a fragmented word. (I’m often tasked as the “interpreter” for my own child because others aren’t as familiar with her unique ways of communicating.)

By constantly anticipating all of your baby’s needs, you are starving them of the chance to gain independence. You might know that when they point to the top shelf in the kitchen, they want a cookie, but try to avoid the temptation of just giving it to them. Why? Because if you simply do everything for your child, they won’t have to learn how to use their own voice to get what they want. Children need to learn the power of their words so they will start using them on their own!

Instead of giving your child whatever they want, help them be more communicative. There is somewhat of a hierarchy when it comes to a baby learning how to talk/communicate. When babies are first born, they pretty much just cry when they need something. Eventually, though, babies will learn they can look at something they want. Then, they might learn how to point at what they want. Next, they will try saying the word, but it might not be terribly accurate. (This might be baby sign language or words. If you want to know more about baby sign language, check out my post here.)

Basically, you should try to lead your baby to the next step of communication. If they only cry, work on gestures (like pointing). If they only point, work on using words. You don’t have to require it every time, but it’s important to help them learn the next step in the communication hierarchy.

4. Not using enough wait time.

Conversation should be a back and forth exchange between two or more people. Although your baby is probably far from having a full-on conversation, that is the end goal. Foundational to conversations is the idea that people take turns talking.

When you talk to your baby, give them a chance to respond. If they aren’t using very many words yet, you should still give them some time and an expectant look to help them know they can respond. When you first start doing this, they may not react in any way. However, as you continue to give them more chances to respond, they might give you a smile. Eventually, that smile might turn into a little coo or sound. After that, they might even gesture in some way or say an actual word.

Give them the opportunity and time to have a back and forth interaction with you as you go throughout the day. You might be pleasantly surprised with how they respond!

talking to your baby

5. Asking too many questions.

Asking questions can certainly be a part of your verbal interactions with your little one, but make sure to use a variety of sentence types. By overusing questions, you are basically quizzing your child and asking them to “perform”. Can you imagine if every time you talked to your friend or partner it was always in the form of a question? That would be completely maddening!

Overusing questions may put undue pressure on your little one, causing them to want to talk less. Instead, comment on what is going on around you and wait for a response from your child. (See #3 above for why wait time matters.) This strategy takes the pressure off your child and is a more natural way of interacting. By commenting and waiting, you are giving your child a chance to say what they want. They may choose not to respond every time, but that is okay!

For instance, you might be at the grocery store, trying to take advantage of all the awesome language opportunities there (good job!). You might ask, “What should we get to eat tonight? What color are those carrots? How many apples do you see? Where should we go next?” Instead, you could comment on things. You might say “I am hungry for some green beans tonight”. Or you could point to the apples and say that they are red, or just start counting them. This style of interacting with your child is more of an invitation to talk than an expectation to perform.

6. Mispronouncing words or using other unhelpful “baby talk”.

You probably know what I mean when I say “baby talk”. It’s the characteristically high-pitched, rhythmic, repetitive way of talking to children that sometimes just happens when you start talking to a cute baby. “Parentese” is also characterized by more repetition, shorter phrases, and simpler grammatical structure. The interesting part is that “parentese” can be beneficial when used well. In a study by Sudartinah (2016), the benefits of talking in this modified, simplistic way include increased vocabulary, a better understanding of grammatical structures, comprehension of abstract language, and better conversational structure.

However, sometimes “baby talk” can be taken too far. When parents begin to purposely (or sometimes unknowingly) speak with incorrect speech sounds, there may be a negative outcome for the child. When talking to your baby, be sure to use correct sounds, so they can model them with accuracy. If you say “I wuv you” instead of “I love you”, your child will have a harder time with the “L” sound. The beneficial parts of parentese include the slower pace, rhythmic production, and simplified vocabulary. The unhelpful factor I hear most often used is when adults pronounce words incorrectly to sound more “cutesy”.

The important thing is that you use the positive characteristics of parentese, while still pronouncing the words correctly. If you do not use the sounds correctly, your child will have difficulty producing the sound correctly. It’s really that simple!

Let me hear from you!

Comment below with a few things you might want to change when interacting with your baby or toddler. I’d also love to hear about any pet peeves you have when it comes to other people talking to your little one.

Sudartinah, Titik. (2016). The Role of Parentese in First Language Acquisition: A psycholinguistic Study. Journal of English and Education. 2. 54-66. 10.20885/jee.vol2.iss1.art6.

2 thoughts on “6 Things You Are Doing Wrong When Talking to Your Baby or Toddler”

  1. Excellent points! As a fellow SLP in early intervention, I’m glad to have found this clear and accessible resource. Please keep writing!

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