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18 Sep

20048aOne day your teenager will debate you on the logic of your rules, using words, facial expressions and gestures to communicate his thoughts, feelings and ideas. That’s expressive language in action—skills he began using the moment he was born and cried to let you know he needed you.

Expressive language is one of three branches of language, along with receptive language (what we hear and understand) and pragmatic, or social, language (how we relate to others, including understanding and using nonverbal cues).

What are Expressive Language Skills?

Expressive language skills allow us to:

• Communicate Feelings, Needs, Ideas & Intentions

• Label and Describe Objects, Actions, Events & Concepts

• Form Sentences & Use Correct Grammar

• Retell Events

• Answer Questions

• Develop & Tell A Story

Children who have trouble with expressive language may not be able to speak clearly or form sentences with an age-appropriate number of words. They may get frustrated easily because they can’t communicate their feelings, needs or ideas, or because they have a hard time retelling events. It may be difficult for them to play with peers. When they start school, tasks like answering questions, talking about what they’ve learned, and creating and writing stories can be challenging.

Ways to Support Your Baby’s Expressive Language Development

Nurture His Receptive Language
Research shows that the more words a child hears during the first years of his life, the better his vocabulary and other language skills will be at age 3. Here are some great tips for promoting his receptive language skills.

Model Speech
When your little one sees a car and says “ca,” you can say “yes, that’s a car,” stressing the “r” at the end. When he begins to form sentences, they will be short and grammatically incorrect. He may say, “Me want cup,” and you can respond by modeling: “I want my cup, too!”

Play Imitation Games
Imitating your baby’s speech sounds is a great way to motivate him to practice expressive language. Chances are if he babbles “ba!” and you say “ba!” back, he’ll keep going. When he starts to say words, you can use imitation to model correct pronunciation. He will love imitating the lyrics and hand motions of songs like The Itsy Bitsy Spider, which also support his executive functioning skills.

Ask Questions and Give Prompts
Touch your nose and say, “What’s this?” Or ask your little one what sounds different animals make. If you know he can say a word, prompt him by making the first sound. For example, if he’s gesturing towards his cup, you can point at it and say, “Cuuu.”

Offer Choices
Choices like “Do you want an apple or a banana?” at mealtime, or “Is this a cat or a dog?” during playtime build vocabulary and encourage labeling.

Create Fill-In-The-Blank Games
When your baby is familiar with a song, leave out a word here and there so he can jump in and fill in the blank.

Give Him Opportunities
Even when he’s just five months old and reaching for a toy beyond his fingers, you can give him an opportunity to communicate by not jumping in immediately to help. Giving him a chance to vocalize that he wants the toy before you push it within his reach reinforces that he can use expressive language to get his needs met.

If you browse the speech section of our BabySparks program, you will find dozens of instructional videos showing you fun ways to use these strategies with your baby.

18 Sep

20047aBy the time your child begins speaking, her receptive language development—what she hears and understands—is already well under way. Receptive language is often described as one of three areas of language, along with expressive language (expressing thoughts, feelings, ideas and concepts) and pragmatic, or social, language (relating to others, including understanding and using nonverbal cues).

What are Receptive Language Skills?

Receptive language skills allow us to make sense of and respond to the information we hear and see. Children who have trouble with receptive language struggle to understand words and concepts, answer questions, follow instructions, comprehend stories, and retell events.

Your baby gains receptive language skills through:

• Routines: She understands that when you give her a bath, put on her pajamas, and sing a lullaby it means you are preparing her for sleep.

• Visual Information: She associates you preparing a bottle with being fed.

• Sounds and Words: She connects the jingle of your car keys with leaving the house. She learns that the name of the family cat is a label for the little furry creature in the house.

• Concepts: She learns the meaning of concepts like size, shape, color and location.

• Grammar: She develops an understanding that words can be used differently to express different things: Cat means one cat, and cats means more than one cat.

• Written Information: This begins with finding meaning in pictures, like seeing a picture of a dog and understanding that it’s a dog. Eventually this will include reading and understanding words and symbols.

Ways to Support Your Baby’s Receptive Language Development

Talking to your baby in engaging, meaningful ways is important for many areas of her development, including receptive language. A famous study looked at children growing up in professional, working-class and poor families and found that at age 3 the children from the professional families had heard an average of 30 million more words than those from the families on welfare. The children who heard more words had better overall language skills and success in school. The takeaway? No matter your level of education, talking to your baby as much as possible is one of the best ways to nurture her receptive and overall language skills.

Label & Describe
The more you can label and describe things, the better! At mealtime you can comment on the food and her actions: “That’s a blueberry. You’re eating blueberries. Are they squishy and cold?” During bath time: “I’m washing your arm. Now I’m washing your belly. Look at the soap, it’s making bubbles!”

If your baby points to a ball, instead of simply saying, “That’s a ball!” you can say: “That’s a blue ball! It’s under the table.”

Follow Your Baby’s Lead
Research shows that if you talk to your baby about things she’s focused on, her language learning is heightened. Pay attention to what she looks at, points at, and chooses to play with and talk to her about those things.

Reading is great for your little one’s receptive language, as it gives meaning to words, pictures, symbols and concepts.

Sing Songs
Singing and other musical activities have been linked to better language skills. Your baby will love the classics, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and she’ll love silly songs you make up, too.

Give Simple Directions
As your baby gains the ability to do things independently give her simple directions to follow. For example: “Please put this in the trash.” Or, when getting dressed: “Can you bring me your socks?”

If you’re curious about exactly what your baby understands and when, check out our article about receptive language milestones.

In the speech section of our BabySparks program, you can find dozens of brief, instructional videos to guide you in using the strategies described above.

11 Sep

20046aHere at BabySparks we talk a lot about interacting with your baby. In fact, we designed our entire program around back-and-forth between you and your little one. Research shows that engaging with your baby in meaningful ways, whether you’re helping him learn to walk or playing peek-a-boo, changes the shape of his brain and sets him up for success in all areas of his life. One of these areas is language.

What is the 30 Million Word Gap?

Over 20 years ago, researchers at The University of Kansas embarked on a now-famous study: Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children. Their work highlighted the crucial role verbal interactions between babies/toddlers and their caregivers plays in language acquisition and later success in school.

The researchers recruited 42 families with children roughly 7-8 months old. 13 of the families were professional, 23 were working-class, and 6 were living on welfare. For one hour every month, the researchers observed the children and their parents, tracking their verbal interactions.

The results showed that children from the professional families heard an average of 2,150 words every hour, while those from the working-class and welfare families heard an average of 1,250 and 600 per hour, respectively.

This means that by age 3, children from the professional families heard an average of 30 million more words than children from the families on welfare. What’s more, follow-up studies showed that the children who heard more words had superior language skills, higher IQs, and better academic outcomes in elementary school.

More Than Words

The 30 million word gap suggests that it’s important for babies and toddlers to hear a lot of words, but the study’s authors as well as other researchers agree that simply saying words to a child isn’t enough. The quality of the verbal interactions also plays a role.

The authors of the Meaningful Differences study noted that in addition to the number of words children heard, better language and academic outcomes were also associated with the amount of encouraging and discouraging feedback they received. Children from professional families received an average of 32 affirmations and 5 prohibitions per hour, while those from welfare families heard an average of 5 affirmations and 11 prohibitions.

Findings from other researchers also point to the importance of conversational qualities such as shared focus (your baby is interested in a toy, you also show interest), using body language along with words (you make eye contact with your baby and use facial expressions and gestures while speaking), conversational turn-taking (you engage in back-and-forth communication with him), and building on what he says (if he babbles or talks about a cat you say, “Look at the black cat! She’s so furry!”).

What This Means for You

The key take-away is that no matter your financial status, engaging in warm and meaningful verbal interactions with your baby as often as you can will boost his language development (and countless other areas of development as well).

Your baby depends on you to teach him language, and it’s never too early to start! From the moment he’s born, thoughtfully responding to his sounds, expressions and gestures counts as conversation and lays the foundation for all language learning.

You can read more about language development in our articles on expressive language, receptive language, and pragmatic language.

21 Aug

20045aWhen we think of language, we tend to think of using and understanding words. Language, though, is full of social nuances that surpass words. Imagine you arrive home and see a neighbor. You greet him by smiling and waving, and initiate a conversation by commenting on the weather. You know how far to stand from him, and how to maintain eye contact while taking turns speaking and listening to each other. You use facial expressions and gestures to communicate different feelings.

All of these nuances fall under the umbrella of pragmatic language, one of three areas of language along with expressive language and receptive language. A person can have an exceptional vocabulary and ability to form sophisticated sentences and still struggle to relate to others because of poor pragmatic language skills.

Along with receptive language, your baby begins acquiring pragmatic language long before his first word. Every time you interact with him he learns about the social norms of language from the way you speak to him and use your face and body to communicate.

What Are Pragmatic Language Skills?

Pragmatic language skills can be divided into three main areas:

Knowing How to Use Language

Using words for different purposes, such as:

  • Greeting someone: Hello! How are you?
  • Asking for something Could I please have a piece of paper?
  • Persisting when not heard or understood: I’m not sure you heard me, could I have a piece of paper? Or: No, that’s not what I meant. Let me explain.
  • Informing someone: I’m going to get a piece of paper.

Knowing How to Change Language

Different situations require different types of language. For example:

  • The language we use at a sporting event may be loud and boisterous, while at a library it’s quiet and subdued.
  • Speaking to a close friend requires less background information than if we’re talking to a person we’ve just met.
  • When we talk to a baby, we use different words and tones of voice than if we are speaking to an adult.

Knowing How to Follow the Social Rules of Language

Social interactions are a complex dance involving:

  • Making eye contact.
  • Gauging a comfortable distance between ourselves and others.
  • Taking turns.
  • Knowing how to give just enough information to portray something without going on and on.
  • Being able to listen and offer appropriate responses.
  • Using and understanding implied meaning.
  • Staying on topic.
  • Seeing something from another’s perspective.
  • Using and reading nonverbal cues like tones of voice, posture, gestures and facial expressions.

How to Nurture Pragmatic Language Skills

Pragmatic skills may seem obvious to many of us—we use them every day without even thinking about it! Like all skills, though, they are learned, and the primary way we learn and practice them is by interacting with others.

Miami-based Speech-Language Pathologist Mandy Alvarez, says that she has seen a rise in language and social challenges. “We’re seeing a lot of kids who struggle socially,” she says. “They have a hard time making friends and playing with other kids.” Although it’s hard to pin down a reason for this uptick, Alvarez believes it may be related to a rise in screen time, which takes away from human interaction.

One of the areas kids miss out on when they’re in front of a screen, or bogged down with organized activities, is free play. Free play and pretend play are drivers of pragmatic language (as well as many other areas of development) because they involve cooperative back-and-forth and acting out of social situations.

The key is to interact with your child in meaningful ways as often as possible. If you’re doing daily BabySparks activities with him, you’re boosting his pragmatic language skills. Whether encouraging him to crawl or showing him how to stack blocks, the engaging back-and-forth between you during these activities helps prepare him to navigate the complex social world.

21 Aug

20044aNever has anything lived up to its name quite like the pacifier! It can pacify an upset baby in seconds, and can help the entire family get some much-needed sleep during the early days of sleep deprivation. Still, parents wonder about the drawbacks of pacifier use.

As specialists in speech, language and feeding, we’ve seen that prolonged pacifier use can cause problems with oral motor development, which is crucial for feeding and speech. We’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and how you can use a pacifier wisely to reap its benefits and avoid its downsides.

What’s Good About Pacifiers?

Full-term, typical developing babies are born with a strong suckling reflex. In fact, that reflex began in the womb. That’s why you may have seen your baby sucking her thumb in ultrasound pictures. Because babies must suck to eat, this reflex is nature’s way of ensuring that they receive nutrition. Using a pacifier in-between feedings can satisfy your baby’s urge to suck, and it also supports early development of her tongue.

Pacifier use has other upsides as well. It has shown to reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) until the age of 6 months, when the risk of SIDS drops. It’s helpful during air travel, because sucking during take-off and landing can reduce ear pressure. Pacifiers can also help babies fall asleep. You may find yourself doing the “pacifier shuffle” as you make your way, half-asleep, to your baby’s crib to reinsert a pacifier. Sometimes this is all it takes to help her (and everyone else in the house) fall back asleep.

Okay, So What’s Bad About Pacifiers?

Research has shown that after 6 months of age, the negatives of pacifier use may begin to outweigh the positives. Prolonged pacifier use has been correlated with an increased risk of ear infections, as well as problems with oral motor development.

For optimal oral motor development, your baby needs to be able to freely move her jaw, tongue and lips. This is especially important during gross motor movement, because gross motor milestones correspond with oral motor milestones. When she is crawling, for instance, the side-to-side movements of her body are also happening inside her mouth. Having a pacifier in her mouth while she is crawling can take away from strengthening those mouth movements, which allow her to bite and chew food, and make more complex speech sounds.

Prolonged pacifier use can also cause problems with proper growth of the mouth and may lead to misaligned teeth, a poorly-shaped roof of the mouth, tongue protrusion, and reduced lip and cheek strength. All of this can interfere with feeding and speech development.

Finally, pacifiers can take away from the benefits of play. Babies naturally use their mouths to explore objects, which helps them understand concepts like shape, temperature, and texture. Play also drives development through meaningful interactions with a caregiver. You will notice that if you play with your baby without a pacifier in her mouth, she will make more sounds and facial expressions.

All of that said, we believe pacifiers have their place. The key is using them wisely by being mindful about how, why, and for how long you use them.

How to Use A Pacifier Wisely

Try other ways to calm your baby first. When she is about 5 months old, her suckling reflex will fade, and that’s a good time to start trying other ways to calm her when she’s upset. Try holding, feeding, rocking, walking, or playing.

Engage in pacifier-free play. As we mentioned above, pacifiers can inhibit the rich learning that happens during play. Take advantage of playtime to encourage your baby to make sounds and facial expressions.

Shelf the pacifier when your baby is moving. Also as mentioned above, allowing your baby to move during tummy time, rolling over, sitting up, crawling, etc. without a pacifier in her mouth will optimize the oral motor development that happens alongside those gross motor milestones.

Give your baby a chance to self-soothe. If she gets upset when she is awake, alert and fed, give her a minute to see if she can calm down on her own. Sometimes a hug, a few reassuring words, or a simple distraction can cut tears short without having to use a pacifier.

Determine whether your baby wants the pacifier or needs it. There will be times during her first year when she simply needs the comfort of a pacifier to feel calm, and that’s okay.

Follow a timeline for taking it away. We recommend that when your baby turns 6 months old, you gradually decrease pacifier use so that when she turns 1 she only uses it for sleeping. Around 18 months, either stop pacifier use altogether or decrease the time she uses it for sleeping so that by her 2nd birthday she is totally pacifier free.

Pacifier use has clear positives and negatives, and we hope this information helps you use them wisely!