Even if your baby doesn’t understand words yet, you can still interact with them!
From the day they’re born, your baby is ready to communicate. Even if they don’t recognize words yet, your intonation conveys all sorts of emotions. When they’re only a few days old, an infant can distinguish between all the speech sounds of every possible language. They lose this ability at about 10 to 12 months as they start to learn their mother tongue(s).
Babies want to interact
At birth, your baby can only see a short distance. They’re very interested in your face and will follow it with their gaze if you’re very close. They also enjoy hearing your voice.
Every moment you spend interacting with your baby prepares them for learning language.
At around 2 to 3 months, your baby starts to smile and make vocalizations. This is their way of communicating with you! Feel free to respond with words and gestures. Your baby also wants to meet your gaze, knowing intuitively that eye contact is part of human interaction.
What’s more, as they grow, your little one learns the art of conversation through interactive play. Peek-a-boo tends to be a favourite game between the ages of 6 and 18 months. When you disappear and reappear, your baby responds to your cues and waits for your response.
At around 6 months, your baby begins to focus on your lip movements when you speak. They’re getting ready to talk. They start to imitate your gestures, like clapping, and eventually, to say words.
Understanding your baby’s communication cues
Before they can talk, your baby uses smiles, gestures, and cries to communicate with you. Pay attention to their cues and try to put what they’re expressing into words. For example, you could say, “Milk? Do you want milk?”
If you name what your baby wants, they’ll feel satisfaction at having successfully communicated with you. Plus, it’s a great way to support their language development.
Once your child learns to point around 9 to 12 months, their desires and interests become much clearer. Your baby points to things they find interesting or want and wait for you to react. Sometimes they make sounds as well. For example, they may point to a toy out of reach and make an insistent sound, like “ah, ah!”.
Try to verbalize what you think they’re trying to say. For instance, you could say, “A truck, yes! I see it too,” or “Do you want me to give you the little train? Here’s the little train.” This will help your baby learn to communicate with words.
Your little one’s first words aren’t always easy to understand, so they use gestures and actions to get their message across. For example, they may say “tuck” while reaching for their toy truck that’s out of reach. Do your best to put what they’re expressing into words. Make sure to include the word you think they’re trying to say.
Speak slowly and clearly so they have a good model to follow. It’s perfectly normal for your child to mispronounce their first words.
Talk to your baby often
It’s important that you speak to your little one throughout the day. For example, you can narrate what you’re doing while bathing, changing, or feeding them. By regularly naming the objects in your environment and the things you do, you’re supporting their language development. Even though they can’t talk yet, the words you say are stored in their memory for later.
Feel free to add information to enrich your interactions and help your baby understand you. Use simple but complete sentences like, “The truck is driving fast,” or, “You’re eating carrots.”
When talking to your little one, you can also use gestures or actions to make things clearer. For example, when you say, “It’s time for lunch,” you can pretend to eat.
Things to keep in mind
Your baby is born with the skills they need to interact and express their needs.
Be attentive to their communication cues and try to put their wants and interests into words.
Talk to your baby often about what you’re doing throughout the day. The words you say will be stored in their memory for later in their development.
Scientific review: Marie-Ève Bergeron-Gaudin, M.Sc., Speech-Language Pathologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: August 2020
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Bergeron-Gaudin, Marie-Ève. J’apprends à parler : le développement du langage de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2014, 176 pp.
Bouchard, Caroline (under the direction of). Le développement global de l’enfant de 0 à 6 ans en contextes éducatifs. Quebec City, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2019, 516 pp.
Daviault, Diane. L’émergence et le développement du langage chez l’enfant. Montreal, Chenelière Éducation, 2011, 256 pp.
Tsang, Tawny, et al. “Selective attention to the mouth is associated with expressive language skills in monolingual and bilingual infants.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol. 169, 2018, pp. 93–109.
Werker, J. F. and P. J. McLeod. “Becoming a native listener.” American Scientist, vol. 77, no. 1, 1989, pp. 54–59.