Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is an APNZ news reporter based in Wellington.

Early teaching 'helps babies talk'

The book says eye contact is vital and urges parents to describe out loud what their baby is doing. Photo / Getty Images
The book says eye contact is vital and urges parents to describe out loud what their baby is doing. Photo / Getty Images

Parents can help boost their children's language skills by teaching babies to talk from birth, a new books claims - and local experts say the advice is sound.

The book Small Talk, by British speech therapist Nicola Lathey and journalist Tracey Blake, suggests parents should start having back-and-forth "conversations" with babies from the age of 4 weeks.

Such interactions involve eye contact and utterances, which helps to teach babies about turn-taking - an important part of communication.

The book also suggests parents should describe out loud what their babies are doing, which helps to link actions with words. It also recommends parents use words consistently, repeat words over time, and speak clearly.

The techniques had a dramatic effect on Ms Blake's daughter, Minnie, who spoke in fluent sentences at 18 months - an age when most babies can muster only 10 to 20 words.

Dr Linda Hand, the head of speech science at Auckland University, said the techniques made for "extremely good advice".

She said people tended to think language started with recognisable words, but it actually began with communication and interaction.

"This interaction pattern is set up mutually by the adult and the baby, and it does go on automatically and people are not aware of it. But if you intensify that, or you realise that and take advantage of that, you can set up very good communication foundations."

Dr Hand said parents should not have unrealistic expectations.

"There's a lot of variation in normal communication development, and some children start very young and chatter away happily - and some don't start anywhere like as young," she said.

"If it's a case of feeling competitive and feeling anxious about children's language development, then that's clearly not a good thing. But talking to your child and paying attention to what your child is interested in and picking out the salient words, whatever is appropriate for that child's stage of development, cannot ever hurt. It can only help."

Professor Thomas Klee, co-director of Canterbury University's child language centre, said talking to children from a young age was useful for language development.

"I think it's very good advice ... Babies are well-equipped on the day they're born to start making sense of their environment, and sound is part of the environment, people talking is part of the environment."

NZ Speech-Language Therapists' Association president Helen McLauchlan said therapists backed communication from birth. " ... all speech therapists would certainly support and encourage any kind of communication-interaction from whatever age your child is."

Lots of chat helps: Mum

As a speech therapist, Helen McLauchlan knows more than many new mums about how to encourage language development.

With her daughters Harriet, 5, and Isobel, 3, that involved talking and reading to them since they were young babies.

"I've always tried to talk to them and communicate with them at whatever level they're at, really - so things like encouraging turn-taking games like peek-a-boo ... I just always wanted to foster their language development."

She said both girls developed speech at age-appropriate times.

"But they've both been quite competent with language development, and they've always been good talkers."

Ms McLauchlan had always tried to interact with her girls - and her background in speech therapy "hadn't hurt", she said. "Anything that you can do to engage them in positive communication interactions is bound to help them in later life. Communication is also the foundation for literacy, so lots of reading and communication interactions like that really helps."

- APNZ

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