Most parents have read enough baby books to know talking to their baby while in the womb is crucial. This communication, the sound of your voice, will be a future comfort for your infant (even though your voice will sound distorted.) But what about once the baby is born? What do you talk about? It’s easy to see the discomfort while parents attempt to talk to their infant; by trying on different tonal patterns, speaking in baby-talk and searching for conversation topics which might interest their baby. The discomfort largely has to do with the fact that infants are terrible conversationalists, the other end is that we just don’t know what or how to talk to our infants.
I think there are two major things parents/nannies are unsure of when talking to their infant. The first order of business is how to talk to them; do you talk in your normal voice, or do you raise the pitch? Do you speak in proper sentences with proper pronunciation, or speak in “baby talk”? Second, what do you talk about? Do you talk in long personal monologues or pointed conversations involving your infant, or both?
How to Talk:
Tip: Think about how you want to talk to your baby.
While it can be tempting to talk to your infant in a higher pitch and baby-talk nonsensical “sentences”, I try to avoid this form of communication. We, as parents and nannies, are their model for verbal communication. Don’t we want to teach them the proper way to speak, form sentences and communicate at large?
Tip: Say words correctly.
I fight the urge to talk like this, “Who’s a tubby-wubby tummy flubber?” because I think pronouncing words correctly is important for our future talkers. I make sure to annunciate, use short and concise language and I even raise my pitch on occasion. I say, “I love you.” Instead of, “I wub you.”
Tip: Break your language down.
Remember to break your language down, so that words will be more accessible to your child when they are able to talk. Use words they will be able to say, don’t say she’s “flabbergasted” say she’s “shocked”. If you are a linguist remember that “big words” will be more difficult for your baby to say, so save your vocabulary for adults.
Be concise with your sentences, and avoid complicated grammar. Don’t say, “Although when the temperature is appropriate this would be a lovely toy to utilize, today a storm is forecasted, so let’s just play with the ball.” Instead say, “It might rain, so we will stay inside and play with the ball.”
Tip: Be consistent.
In order for your child to understand, and eventually use words, they need to understand the words: both how to say them and how to use them. Be consistent with your words, decide what word you will use to describe something and continue to use that word, repetition is the best way for your baby learn language. If you decide to refer to your baby’s stomach as “belly” then use that word every time. And use repetition, “This is your belly, can you touch your belly? Can you show me your belly?”
What to talk about:
Tip: Involve your infant in the conversation.
A lot of your communication with your infant will be talking about whatever comes to mind. A running monologue of your daily activities together is great, keep doing it, but also involve her in the conversation. Ask your baby questions, even though she can’t respond, this shows her that you’re interested. “How was your nap? Do you want to eat? Do you like this book?” Your perceived patience and willingness to involve her will give space for her to communicate when she can verbally or physically do so.
Tip: Take time to describe and explain.
I believe asking questions, and taking the time to describe and explain things in detail will promote verbal communication, and makes for “good-listeners”. Babies learn communication skills through us, they learn listening, and verbal techniques by watching and hearing us listen and talk.
They will replicate our actions, so pay attention to their moods, and ask them questions about how they are feeling, even if they can’t verbally respond. Ask your infant/toddler why she is upset, happy, frustrated, etc., then repeat what she either shows you or tells you. “You’re upset because you can’t touch the stove? I understand, but the stove is a thing for big people…” Acknowledging how they feel and giving them language to describe their feelings shows them you care, and will be patient with them, characteristics I’m sure we all want our children to have.
Tip: Explain EVERYTHING.
Explain everything, how things feel, the purpose of objects, safety, etc. It’s easy as adults to take for granted all of the things we know without ever consciously thinking about it. Remember that your infant, baby, toddler does not know how to describe things, what things are and what they are used for (windows, fans, stoves, etc.,) so explain everything. Instead of ignoring your child’s screams explain why you are lathering her in sunscreen for the 5th time, “I know you don’t like this but sunscreen is important, it protects our skin.” It will be soothing for your baby because you’re acknowledging their frustration, but you’re also filling them in on what’s happening.
Tip: Think about what can be a learning opportunity for both your child and you.
If your infant pulls your hair, bites your nipple, or does something that is too rough, take this opportunity to explain how to be gentle. This is not a moment to reprimand your infant, because she does not know “right” from “wrong” but begin to teach her these things when they happen. Explain being gentle both with words and show her with your touch what “gentle” means; lightly touch her arm, or the place on her body where she was rough with you and say the word “gentle” or “soft”.
This is also an important learning opportunity for the parent/nanny, because you will need to learn how to explain and show your child acceptable vs. unacceptable behaviors, so start early. Beginning conversations of safety and behaviors early will prepare you for when you will have to do it daily, when your baby becomes a toddler.