by Ruth A. Wilson, Ph.D.
What do horse whisperers, dog whisperers, and baby whisperers have in common? They’ve all found a way to hold a good conversation—this despite that horses, dogs, and babies don’t have the words to express what they want to say.
Words aren’t really needed for holding a conversation. What is essential is back-and-forth communication. Sermons and lectures aren’t conversations, because they’re limited to one-way communication—something babies (and most other people) aren’t usually interested in.
But babies are interested in communicating. And they do have a lot to say.
Babies’ inability to use words need not exclude them from being a part of a conversation, because they have other skills enabling them to be good communicators. At a very early age, babies are able to participate in both sides of a back-and-forth conversation. They can both give and receive messages.
One of the challenges of successfully parenting children is establishing and maintaining good communication—and this process that should start during a child’s first year of life. Fortunately, it’s easy to keep a conversation going with your baby.
How babies communicate
In their book Developmental Profiles: Pre-Birth Through Twelve (now in its fifth edition), K. Eileen Allen, professor emerita of the University of Kansas, and Lynn Marotz, Ph.D., R.N., tell us that most babies acquire the following communication skills—and more!—before the age of 1:
As your baby’s communication skills develop, she becomes increasingly more capable of holding a conversation. So what your baby needs most is a partner who understands and responds to what she is trying to communicate.
Listening to your baby
To help you become a better communication partner with your baby, you might think of a conversation as a type of dance. Partners in a dance move in rhythm with each other. They focus on each other and respond to each other. One person usually leads, but—if interest in the dance is to continue—both partners remain attentive to the other.
The first rule in keeping a conversation going with your baby is to let your baby take the lead. Let her choose the topic and pace, and then do what a good dance partner would do—respond to what your partner does.
If your baby opens her eyes wide, open yours wide. If your baby reaches out to touch your arm, reach out to touch her arm. If your child laughs, you laugh, too.
Respond with looks, as well. If your baby looks at a cup, toy, or another person, turn your attention to the same thing. What your baby is looking at becomes the topic of conversation. The conversation may be brief, but the recognition of joint attention won’t be lost on your baby.
In other words, respond to whatever your baby does with sounds, gestures, and body movements.
“Joint attention” is really another term for “topic of conversation.” If two people aren’t focused on the same topic, no real conversation will take place. So to keep the conversation going with your baby, attend to what she’s focusing on and then follow her lead. Following your baby’s lead lets her know that you are listening to what she says and that you regard her messages as being important.
Speaking to your baby
Listening to your baby is just one side of a conversation. The other side is speaking to your baby—or sending her messages.
Fred Wilson, B.M.Ed., M.A.Ed., a developmental counselor and music educator (and my husband), suggests using music to speak to your baby. He points out how music is a universal language. Even without words—or with words not understood by the listener—music still speaks to us.
Singing to your baby, he says, can tell her that she is safe and loved. Singing to your baby can also tell her that sounds and rhythms are interesting and fun. Dancing with your baby as you sing can also tell her that life is fun!
Additional Tips for Great Interactions have been developed by educators of the Hamill Family Play Zoo near Chicago. Their tips, which they share with parents and other play partners, for speaking to a baby or young child include the following:
While Being with Babies by Beverly Kovach and Denise Da Ros-Voseles was written primarily for caregivers in programs for infants and toddlers, you may find this book an excellent resource for additional ideas on how to communicate successfully with your baby. Another suggested resource is Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect, and Communicate With Your Baby by Tracy Hogg and Melinda Blau.
Dr. Ruth Wilson, author of several books and numerous articles on young children, was a teacher and teacher educator for over 30 years. She currently devotes her time to writing about issues relating to young children and their holistic development.