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Building Conversations
Respond to Your Baby's Communication
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baby in carrierHow do babies communicate? All babies start to communicate well before they know any words. A baby's smile says, "I'm happy" or "Do that game again!" A baby cries to let us know, "I'm hungry" or "I need a diaper change." Babies coo to say, "I feel good." From the first month on, babies listen and pay attention to important voices around them. They discover their voices and play with sounds in squeals, grunts, coos and gurgles. Around six to ten months of age, babies discover that they can join sounds together to babble strings like "dadada" or "gagaga." When babies are about nine months of age, they start to point or reach. These gestures may mean, "I want that!" or "Look at me!"

Family members can help get the communication game started by following two simple guidelines. You will probably notice that you are already doing this naturally. If you are, just keep it up! Follow the two R's of early communication:

  • Recognize your baby's signals. Ask yourselves: "What is my baby trying to say with his or her eyes, face, body or voice?"
  • Respond to these signals as communication. Remind yourselves, "Talk about my baby's idea."

Recognizing Signals
You will notice over time that your baby will use a variety of ways to express herself. Several possibilities are listed below. Take time to observe your own baby. How is your baby communicating without words? What do you think the baby means? Is she asking for attention or help? Does she want you to look at what she is looking at? Does she want more of something or want you to stop? Is she trying to share something fun with you? Have you noticed that even her cries have different meanings?

  • Gestures
  • Vocal sounds
  • Body movements (kicking, getting excited)
  • Eye gaze
  • Reaching
  • Scooting
  • Cries
  • Vocal protests or whines
  • Smiling
  • Anticipating (e.g., hears pat-a-cake and waits for game to start)
  • Watching
  • Touching
  • Facial expressions
  • Getting mad
  • Making happy sound

Baby communicating with mom
click on image to view movie

Practice Example #1
Let's get some practice with the following exercise. Watch the clip and decide what the baby does to communicate. What do you think he is trying to say?

The baby expressed himself by:

a) vocalizing
b) smiling
c) reaching
d) looking at mom
e) all of the above

The correct answer is (e). At the tender age of 7 months, this little boy has figured out lots of ways to express himself. He made vocal sounds, but did you notice that he also reached toward the object? He was reaching and kicking his legs, showing his excitement. Did you notice that he smiled and made eye contact with his mom? This is the way that babies share the enjoyment of an event with others. He seemed to be saying, “I want to touch that baby doll!” Watch again and see if you can pick out each of the ways he communicated.

Baby with mom
click on image to view movie

Practice Example #2
Let's try another example. See if you can recognize what the baby did to communicate to her mom. She is 4 months of age in this example.

The baby expressed herself by:

a) Moving away
b) Crying
c) Vocalizing
d) Gesturing

Did you pick "c" - the answer "vocalizing?" That's right. The baby uses her voice to take her turn. Notice that mom responds to her with a comment. (Yeah, do you want to sit up for a bit?). She treats the vocalization as a meaningful request from her baby to change her position. This helps the baby learn the power of communication.

Responding to Signals
Baby and ParentsSo, we have reviewed some common signals to watch for and recognize. Remember to look for anything: a facial expression, eye contact, or a movement that might have meaning for you. Now step two is to respond - when you give a response to your baby's signals, you encourage the baby to communicate more. You let the baby know, "I heard you!" Every time you respond to a signal, your baby realizes that her gesture, or vocalization, or facial expression made you understand. Your baby will try to communicate that way again.

Every time you respond, you are demonstrating that conversations have two sides, and that both partners get a turn (like that volleyball game!). Babies love to communicate. Because they do not always hear us, babies who are hard of hearing or deaf may need us to respond very clearly.

If your hard of hearing baby is just getting used to hearing aids, you want to stay close, use a pleasant but clear voice, and talk about the baby's idea. If your family will be using a form of sign language, you want to stay in the baby's line of vision, look at what the baby looks at, match the baby's facial expression, and use simple signs and gestures.

The most important point at the beginning is to be sure that your baby knows that you responded. This will help your baby begin to predict that you will respond. That makes conversations exciting for both of you. The words will come in time.