Infant Communication: Understanding Your Baby Before Words

When crying and babbling is all your baby does, how can know communicate with them?

Babies are great communicators. Sure, when they REALLY want to tell you something, it typically comes out as crying, but at least they're letting you know that they're hungry. Maybe wet. Possibly cold. Could have a sore tummy...

The list can go on and on, which makes sense. Crying is a baby's first true attempt at communicating with their parents. As exhausting and frustrating as it can be (we've all been there), at least they're trying. Eventually though, and sooner than you may think, spoken words will start to be understood (hallelujah)!

Before those spoken words come, a baby can non-verbally communicate in a multitude of ways. While crying is the biggest one, and easiest one to pick up on in the first two years, there are many other cues they can and will throw the new parent's way.

The nicest cue for a parent to see, and most rewarding, is a simple smile letting you know that baby is happy and content. Eye aversion can signal that baby has had enough stimulation and requires a break from eye contact. Small whimpers or even a whining cry could signal that baby is ready for a new diaper.

All babies are different and react to situations differently, so there is no cookie-cutter answer for each child. But there is so much information online that can help you figure out what’s going on in that little brain. My son is six months old, and looking back, it makes me wish I would have realized the existence of these resources right from the beginning.

One of the most thrilling moments in the life of a new parent, and another great way that baby can communicated non-verbally, is the first time their child acknowledges their own name. Typically, this “first contact” of mutual understanding is one of the first steps to socialization, and is the seed to a vast tree of vocabulary that is beginning to germinate.

Grasping something as simple as their own name is also their first step to the self-realization that they are an individual. Sure, infants will laugh and giggle at all of the funny noises Mom and Dad will make towards them while playing or changing their diaper, but as easy of a concept as it sounds, their own name is typically the first actual piece of language that they hear on a constant basis that is completely directed at them.

So how can you help your baby’s development with your communication? The many tones and phrase structures that can be used when addressing an infant is enough to leave a new parent's head spinning with questions about social development.

As a new father, I was initially on the fence about speaking to my son in baby-talk, thinking that it meant the simple and stereotypical “goo-goo, ga-ga.” I also thought that baby talk was really just talking down to him, something I have never felt comfortable with, even though he is just a newbie to this world. Eventually I got over that fear and embraced baby talk (because really, it is hard not to speak baby-talk to a little smiling, drooling being of complete happiness). That's when his babbling really began to take off.

Interested in this new social leap, I began reading about infant communication and was pleasantly surprised. Studies from the University of Washington, as well as the University of Connecticut, have shown that baby-talk, or parentese, is very important to the development of language. The use of parentese emphasizes important words within a sentence, usually with an elongation of the vowels, and comes across in a very happy tone. All parents have done this at one point, or do this all the time, without realizing that the sputters and babbles that they are getting in return is far more than baby just thinking you're funny, it's actually the beginning of baby attempting dialogue.     

The study showed that the parentese method of communication, with its slower style, emphasizing the important words within a sentence, is more engaging to babies and allows their little minds time to understand that they are being spoken to, and therefore, allow them to answer back. The testing of parentese showed that not only were babies responding with babble more consistently, the occurrence of the baby's first word, and words thereafter, was increased to an earlier age. As opposed to those infants who were spoken to in a normal, adult tone.

So, the next time you look down at the little one sitting in her highchair and say, “baby want some fooood?” in a high pitched, cartoony voice, thinking to yourself that you must sound ridiculous, fear not! You might sound a bit crazy, but you’re actually helping your little one develop.

Ultimately, of course, all babies do develop at their own pace. As far as scientific or sociological experiments go, they can't speak for 100 percent of kids, 100 percent of the time. While doing the partentese method, one child may benefit much earlier from it than another child of the same age. It's just the way development goes sometimes. The main point to communicating with children is to talk often, with positivity. Since they are beings of a copy-cat nature, they could be right around the bend in regards to imitating what they hear from their biggest role models.

After all, monkey-hear, monkey-say is a part of monkey-see, monkey-do. 

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