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  • Writer's pictureDeans Education

Developing Language and Communication Skills from Birth to Three Years

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Being Able to Communicate Effectively is Vital to Success in all Areas of Life

How to communicate effectively is the most important skill that we can teach our children. Supporting them to develop the ability to speak clearly and communicate their thoughts, feelings and emotions is the greatest gift we can give them. It is the prerequisite to learning to read, write, spell and express themselves confidently, and is their access to success in all areas of life.

Good communication skills are fostered by using simple appropriate language and gentle reinforcement of appropriate ways to speak and interact with others. Every child is unique and develops language at their own pace. Children that grow up in a warm encouraging environment will spontaneously begin to mimic their carers..

Communicating with babies from birth -3 months

As adults we communicate with babies through being warm and responsive to their needs. Our touch, tone of voice, facial expressions, hugs and kisses all convey that we love them, no words are needed! Babies attempt to communicate with us from the moment they are born. They eagerly seek eye contact, and respond with delight when we look into their eyes and smile. The more we talk, the more they listen. Our joy at hearing them respond with gurgling and babbling inspires them to try harder to talk to us.

The first six month of life babies all over the world communicate in the same way

There is a universal ‘baby language’ that we can all understand no matter what language we speak. For the first months of their life, all babies communicate in the same way, smiling and wriggling, squirming, kicking their legs and waving their arms in excitement, crying, babbling, cooing and sometimes screaming! They can’t say a word, but we can understand their body language and tone of their voice

Around the age of six-nine months babies all over the world begin to mimic the unique language of the culture they are born into, they assimilate the correct pronunciation, meaning and grammar and can effortlessly become bilingual. Their endless babbling begins to sound like recognisable words, “mum, mum, mum and dad, dad, dad,” are usually the first ones.

They become little copy-cats, and you can play games together, they seem to love blowing raspberries! making silly faces, coughing when you cough and playing peekaboo. Another game that babies enjoy is a variation of hide and seek, show baby an object, have, two or three small pieces of material or plastic cups ready, place the object underneath one piece, and ask baby “where’s it gone”?

Of course, the game they all love is, …..dropping something over the side of the pram or highchair for you to pick up!

Should babies be left to cry ?

It used to be thought that you would spoil a baby if you pick them up when they cry. Babies need to experience love and security to feel relaxed and peaceful, and to feel confident that their needs will be met.. A baby left to cry alone for long periods experiences fear and abandonment and often becomes quiet and withdrawn, they have learnt that they will not be listened to. In some cultures, mothers instinctively keep their babies close to their bodies, carrying them on their back, talking and singing to them as they go about their day and feeding them on demand.

Which baby do you think is happy and contented?

In our society we have to strike a balance, but letting babies scream unattended for long periods is detrimental to their well-being. Predictable routines help babies and toddlers feel safe. A child that has their needs met without having to cry for attention for long periods, does not become demanding, they become secure and content, knowing they can trust their carers’.

Helping your baby to develop a rich vocabulary

Babies love to hear the sound of you singing to them, they recognise their parent's voices from their time in the womb, if you sang or had a favourite song playing before baby was born, they will recognise it, hearing it again will usually soothe them. Introduce lots of songs and nursery rhymes. Play a variety of styles of adult and children’s songs and music in the background as you go about your day. Talk about what you are doing as you, feed and bathe them.

Look at picture books together

Talk about the pictures and stories as you look at each page. Use clear pronunciation, at first name each object individually, use picture books showing familiar objects found at home such a cup, a cot, a banana etc with one clear image on each page, or a book about animals with no background distractions, these are ideal for teaching babies their first words.

Babies start by using nouns to name familiar things around them. We suddenly get a surprise when out of the blue they point and say, “cat”! Gradually around two years old, they learn to add adjectives, eg; “big cat”, then verbs, “big cat running.” It is important to acknowledge that you have understood what your child has said by repeating it in a positive tone “that’s right, a big cat”. If a child is not sure whether you have understood what they said, they will often repeat the word or phrase again and again, looking at you anxiously until you repeat it back to them.

With encouragement, progressively the little ones will start to express their needs, likes and dislikes “me want drink”, me like apple, me no like milk, me no go bed! "when possible give them choices, would you like milk or water , or, banana or pear this encourages more speech and new vocabulary.

It can be tempting to repeat the cute things they say like “git git” for biscuit and bippas for slippers! But that doesn’t help, they need to hear the correct pronunciation. Don't insist that they repeat the word correctly at this stage, simply repeat the word clearly.

It used to be common to use baby language such as “woof, woof,” instead of dog etc: it’s pointless and confusing for a child to suddenly be told “you’re a big boy now, say dog, not woof, woof!” Using the correct names for body parts and objects will constantly expand their vocabulary on a daily basis as they ask all their "‘why" and "what", questions’! In a nursery you will see a two /three-year-old playing with dinosaurs excitedly telling everyone “this is a Diplodocus, this is a Pterodactyl, the long names don’t phase them at all

A word of warning!

Children are little sponges and you are inadvertently ‘teaching’ them all the time.

I have heard some phrases spoken by children in innocence, that parents would never have intended their child to hear and repeat! Parents are role models 24 hours a day, 365 days a year

We have to remember we are the child’s role model in every aspect of their life.

Children learn the rules of their society, what to say and when to say it, what is socially acceptable and what isn't, from their daily interactions with family and friends. The early years are when children’s attitudes and values are formed, from unconsciously absorbing the opinions, actions and reactions from the conversations taking place around them.

Signs of speech delay

No two children progress at the same rate. Most babies are babbling by the age of 6-9 months and have a vocabulary of five words by eighteen months. Around two years old they start to form phrases and sentences, for example, more milk, no bed, they gradually develop a vocabulary of around 1000 words at age three and use them in three and four word sentences.

It is vitally important to attend all developmental check ups at the baby clinic so that any delays are recorded and monitored by your health visitor. A child may be unable to hear some sound frequencies and therefore be unable to reproduce that sound when they speak. They may be unable to form coherent sentences or understand what you have said to them and may ask the same questions time and again.

Any signs of delayed speech should be monitored carefully, and early assessment and intervention sought with support by specialists if needed. Delaying can have a serious impact on a child’s emotional development and lead to challenging behaviour due the frustration of not being able to express themselves and have their needs understood

Childhood illnesses, especially ear infections can affect the development of speech and language. . Dairy produce is well known for causing mucus which can block the sinuses and ear canals. Goats milk, yogurt and cheese, can be used instead of cows milk and is easily available in large grocery stores.

The benefits of investigating Cranial Osteopathy

If, despite having all the recommended support in place and your child is not making good progress, then I recommend an assessment with a qualified, registered, Cranial Osteopath.

Blocked Eustachian tubes caused by 'glue ear' can prevent a child from hearing clearly and quickly cause speech and language difficulties. Gentle Cranial Massage (not to be confused with general osteopathy) can help to drain the mucus from the eustachian tube. MY five year old daughter avoided the need for a planned operation to drain her Eustachian tubes and have grommets fitted after having this gentle treatment.

For details of qualified, registered Cranial Osteopaths, you can contact the General Osteopathic Council, a registered charity, on 0207 357 6655

Listening to young children speak

Listening does not mean being politely quiet while your mind is on something else! Whenever possible we need to give our children our undivided attention, try to engage eye contact and get down to their level. When we listen patiently, with our full attention and without interrupting, we are modelling how to have a polite conversation and demonstrating that we want to hear what they have to say.

It is up to us to provide a nurturing, supportive, environment where our children’s questions, concerns, opinions, and contributions are listened to, acknowledged, valued, and respected.

Temper tantrums

Temper tantrums are often caused when a child is frustrated by not having developed the vocabulary to express themselves clearly. We cannot avoid all outbursts of frustration, it’s to be expected. We have two areas to focus on, we need to support and encourage them to develop their vocabulary and use language instead of having a temper tantrum. We also want to help them develop good social skills, and how to interact with their peers in a group situation, It’s not easy and takes patience but with kind support and reinforcement of how to interact with their peers,, it will pass, and you will be so proud of your little one.

For a two-year old, many problems are caused by them trying to take something away from another child. The best approach is to say firmly, in a no-nonsense tone of voice, “No, John had it first, it will be your turn when he’s finished. Let’s go and build something with the Lego while we wait?

Don’t expect them to agree, just firmly lead them away, they will probably protest at the top of their voice, but an interesting diversion will usually change their focus. The reverse is true if someone tries to take something away from your child, tell them they can have it when your child is finished, don’t try and make them ‘share’.

Giving in to a screaming child for peace and quiet is not a good idea if it can be avoided, they will be triumphant that you gave in and basically you have taught them that screaming works and you can be manipulated! What parents don’t realise is that it leaves the child feeling insecure, and they will need to keep testing you until they know what the boundaries are, they are not at peace until they know.

When they are screaming calmly say, "use your words to tell me what's wrong." Growing up with a clear set of family rules and responsibilities, that are calmly reinforced, avoids unnecessary conflict. Children know what is expected of them, and what they can, and can’t do. This provides them with a sense of security and the self-confidence that they are capable of making the right decisions. Don’t have too many rules, choose them wisely, and talk about the reasons for having them. Review them from time to time as your child matures, the rules need to be age appropriate.

How to have meaningful conversations with your child

"Having a proper conversation with your child can speed up their brain development."

(Source: MT Psychological Sciences. Author: Rachel Romeo, graduate student at Harvard and MIT lead author)

Scientists think it is the process of taking turns in the conversation that makes the difference, rather than the number or difficulty of the words used. The important thing is not to just talk to your child, but to talk with your child. Children between the ages of four -six were studied, it was found that children who were given more opportunities to speak, had more developed language ability. These children had better vocabulary, grammar and verbal reasoning.

These skills can be practiced even before a child speaks, by taking turns making noises, pulling silly faces. The findings show how important it is to have meaningful conversations.” Gone are the days when it was recommended that children should be seen and not heard!

Here are some tips to help you, to help your child develop the speaking and listening skills they need to communicate effectively.


  • Never laugh at their attempts to pronounce words correctly, it will make them clam up, simply repeat the word clearly and calmly, so they hear the correct example in the right context.

  • Use descriptive words in your conversations, instead of big, you could say, large, huge, magnificent. Instead of nice, use beautiful, glorious, delightful, delicious etc.

  • As children get older it’s fun to use a thesaurus together and see how many new words you can find.

  • Never use sarcasm when you speak to a child, they do not understand it, and it creates mistrust.

  • Acknowledge and accept a child’s and feelings and concerns.

  • Have real conversations, don’t just give instructions, be interested in what they say. Look out of the window, talk about what you see, name the flowers and the birds.

  • Encourage further conversations by asking questions that need more than yes or no as an answer. Ask their opinion, “what did you think when …… happened in the story?”. “What do you think about that naughty donkey?” What do you think happened next.

  • Give clear choices, “would you like you to go to the park or the beach? Shall we take apples, or blueberries?” Don’t ask, “what shall we do today?” unless you are completely okay with whatever they suggest! You will create an expectation and then cause unnecessary disappointment; this is unfair to a young child. Plan ahead together, ask, what do we need to put in the trolley to take to the beach tomorrow.

  • Find what interests your child, is it, wild animals, pets, unicorns, fairy stories, trains, cars? go to the library/choose a new book to read together, go on a visit. This demonstrates your genuine interest and makes a child feel important and valued.

  • Respond whenever a child initiates contact with you. If you are in the middle of speaking to someone, remind them you will talk to them when you finish your conversation, unless it’s obvious that its urgent! Tell them they can sit next to you and wait or come back and talk to you in a minute.

  • Use positive language that reinforces the child’s ability to communicate and behave appropriately when we they go out. Remind them before they leave home, such as “remember, we talk quietly in the library, so we don’t disturb people” Or, “remember, we sit down and wait for everyone to finish eating in the restaurant”. Remind them again before you go inside, quietly ask them, “do you remember how we behave in here”?

  • Teach helpful phrases for meeting/being introduced to people, “Hello ….my name is…. how are you” etc, think about the places you go to and the situations your child will encounter. Sometimes a child can appear rude or defiant but in fact they have no idea what to say and they clam up with embarrassment.

  • Avoid shouting unless there is imminent danger, children that are constantly shouted at will learn to switch off and may not respond quickly enough when there is a dangerous situation.

  • Relax together, talk about fun times you had in the past, “do you remember when we ……. ? help them to imagine and recall the details. If there has been a problem and you have seen them use their initiative, give a hug and say, “Well done, you remembered to …….”

  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry, you were right” and give a hug too!

Above all, make your conversations together positive and fun.

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