Communication Birth to 3 Years Old

 


How will your baby begin to communicate? What words can you expect your 2 or 3 year old to know? What milestones can you expect in their communication and language development in the years from birth to 3 - possibly the most crucial years of development for a child - and how can you recognise if a child is falling behind? Most importantly, what can you do to help their development, whether you are a parent, grandparent or Early Years practitioner? We answer all those questions below, as well as providing many ideas, activities and resources to help.

Early Years - Communication Birth to 3 Years Old

Listening and Watching

Babies and toddlers will be learning to:

  • turn towards familiar sounds. They are also startled by loud noises and accurately locate the source of a familiar person’s voice, such as their parent or key person
  • gaze at faces, copying facial expressions and movements like sticking out their tongue
  • make eye contact for longer periods
  • watch someone’s face as they talk
  • copy what adults do, taking ‘turns’ in conversations (through babbling) and activities
  • copy adult speech and lip movements
  • enjoy singing, music and toys that make sounds
  • recognise and be calmed by a familiar and friendly voice
  • listen and respond to a simple instruction

How you can support this stage:

  • Babies and toddlers thrive when you show a genuine interest in them, join in and respond warmly.
  • Using exaggerated intonation and a sing-song voice (infant-directed speech) helps babies tune in to language.
  • Regularly using the baby or toddler's name helps them to pay attention to what you are saying. It is important to minimise background noise, so do not have music playing or the television on all the time.
  • Babies love singing and music. Sing a range of songs and play a wide range of different types of music. Move with babies to music.
  • Babies and toddlers love action rhymes and games. As they begin to join in with the words and the actions, they are developing their attention and listening. Allow babies time to anticipate words and actions in favourite songs.

Checkpoints:

  • Around 6 months, does the baby respond to familiar voices, turn to their own name and ‘take turns’ in conversations with babbling?
  • Around 12 months, does the baby ‘take turns’ by babbling and using single words? Does the baby point to things and use gestures to show things to adults and share interests?
  • Around 18 months, is the toddler listening and responding to a simple instruction like: “Adam, put on your shoes?”

Making Sounds

Babies and toddlers will be learning to:

  • make sounds to get attention in different ways (for example, crying when hungry or unhappy, making gurgling sounds, laughing, cooing or babbling)
  • babble, using sounds like ‘baba’, ‘mamama’
  • use gestures like waving and pointing to communicate
  • reach or point to something they want while making sounds
  • copy your gestures and words
  • constantly babble and use single words during play
  • use intonation, pitch and changing volume when ‘talking’

How you can support this stage:

  • Listen to the messages babies are giving you through their vocalisations, body language and gestures.
  • When babies and toddlers are holding and playing with objects, describe what they are doing.
  • Where you can, give meaning to the baby’s gestures and pointing. For example: “Oh, I see, you want the teddy.”
  • Chat with babies and toddlers. Allow then to take the lead and respond to their communications.
  • Add to what a child is saying to expand their vocabulary. For example, if they say “bag”, you could say: “Yes, daddy’s bag”.

Checkpoints:

  • Is a baby using speech sounds (babbling) to communicate with adults?
  • Around 12 months, is the baby beginning to use single words like mamma, dadda?
  • Around 15 months, can the baby say around 10 words (even if they are not all clear)?
  • Around 18 months, is the toddler using a range of adult-like speech patterns and at least 20 clear words?

First Words

Babies and toddlers will be learning to:

  • understand single words in context, such as ‘cup’, ‘milk’, ‘daddy’
  • understand frequently used words such as ‘all gone’, ‘no’ and ‘bye-bye’

How you can support this stage:

  • You can help babies with their understanding by using gestures and context. You could point to the cup and say “cup”.
  • Talking about what you are doing helps babies learn language in context. “I’m pouring out your milk into the cup.”
  • Read soft books and board books together, pointing to the pictures and saying the words.

Checkpoints:

  • Around 12 months, can the baby choose between 2 objects: “Do you want the ball or the car?”

More Understanding of Words

Babies and toddlers will be learning to:

  • understand simple instructions like “give to mummy” or “stop!”
  • recognise and point to objects if asked about them

How you can support this stage:

  • Singing, action rhymes and sharing books give children rich opportunities to understand new words.
  • Play with groups of objects (different small world animals, soft toys, or tea and picnic sets). Make sure you name things whilst playing, and talk about what you are doing.
  • Read soft books, board books and picture books together, pointing to the pictures and saying the words, and talking about what you see on the pages.

Checkpoints:

Around 18 months, does the toddler understand lots of different single words and some two-word phrases, such as “give me...” or “shoes on”?

Focus and Emotions

Babies and toddlers will be learning to:

  • focus on an activity of their own choice (they may find it difficult to be directed by an adult)
  • listen to other people’s talk with interest (but they can easily be distracted by other things)
  • make themselves understood (and become frustrated when they cannot)
  • say how they are feeling, using words as well as actions
  • develop conversation, often jumping from topic to topic
  • develop pretend play (eg ‘putting the baby to sleep’ or ‘driving the car to the shops’)

How you can support this stage:

  • Help toddlers focus their attention by using their name when giving directions: “Fatima, please put your coat on”.
  • Help toddlers listen and pay attention by using gestures like pointing and facial expressions.
  • Help toddlers who are having tantrums by being calm and reassuring.
  • Help toddlers to express what’s angering them by suggesting words to describe their emotions, like ‘sad’ or ‘angry’. You can help further by explaining in simple terms why you think they may be feeling that emotion.
  • Listen to them with full attention, and join in with their play, indoors and outside.
  • Allow plenty of time to have conversations together, rather than busily rushing from one activity to the next.

Checkpoints:

  • By around 2 years old, is the child showing an interest in what other children are playing and sometimes joining in?
  • By around 3 years old, can the child shift from one task to another if you get their attention?

Speaking

Babies and toddlers will be learning to:

  • use the speech sounds p, b, m, w
  • pronounce l/r/w/y, f/th and s/sh/ch/dz/j and multi-syllabic words such as ‘banana’ and ‘computer’

How you can support this stage:

  • Toddlers and young children will pronounce some words incorrectly. Instead of correcting them, reply to what they say and correctly use the words they have mispronounced. Children will then learn from your positive model, without losing the confidence to speak.
  • Toddlers and young children sometimes hesitate and repeat sounds and words when thinking about what to say. Listen patiently. Do not say the words for them.
  • Encourage children to talk.

Checkpoints:

  • Towards their second birthday:
    • can the child use up to 50 words?
    • is the child beginning to put 2 or 3 words together: “more milk”?
    • is the child frequently asking questions, such as the names of people and objects?
  • Towards their third birthday:
    • can the child use around 300 words, including descriptive language, words for time (for example, ‘now’ and ‘later’), space (for example, ‘over there’) and function (for example, they can tell you a sponge is for washing).
    • is the child linking up to 5 words together?
    • is the child using pronouns (‘me’, ‘him’, ‘she’), and using plurals and prepositions (‘in’, ‘on’, ‘under’). These may not always be used correctly to start with.
    • can the child follow instructions with 3 keywords like: “Can you wash dolly’s face?”

Increased Understanding

Babies and toddlers will be learning to:

  • listen to simple stories and understand what is happening, with the help of the pictures
  • identify familiar objects and properties when they are described, for example, ‘Katie’s coat’, ‘blue car’, ‘shiny apple’
  • understand and act on longer sentences like ‘make teddy jump’ or ‘find your coat’
  • understand simple questions about ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘where’ (but generally not ‘why’)

How you can support this stage:

  • Share picture books every day with children. Encourage them to talk about the pictures and the story. Comment on the pictures – for example: “It looks like the boy is a bit worried…” and wait for their response. You might also ask them about the pictures: “I wonder what the caterpillar is doing now?” Books with just pictures and no words are especially useful at encouraging conversations.
  • Tell children the names of things they do not know and choose books that introduce interesting new vocabulary to them.
  • When appropriate, you can check children’s understanding by asking them to point to particular pictures. Or ask them to point to particular objects in a picture. For example, “Can you show me the big boat?”
  • When talking with young children, give them plenty of processing time. This gives them time to understand what you have said and think of their reply.

Checkpoints:

  • Around the age of 2, can the child understand many more words than they can say – between 200 to 500 words?
  • Around the age of 2, can the child understand simple questions and instructions like: “Where’s your hat?” or “What’s the boy in the picture doing?”
  • Around the age of 3, can the child show that they understand action words by pointing to the right picture in a book. For example: “Who’s jumping?”
  • If a child's speech is not easily understood by unfamiliar adults, consider whether a hearing test might be needed.

This page contains public sector information from "Development Matters", licensed under the Open Government Licence v 3.0.

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