Talking with Your Baby Can Advance Their Language Development

We’ve all heard that it is important to read to children from an early age, but we are also learning it’s vital to talk with them.

We’ve all heard that it is important to read to children from an early age, but we are also learning it’s vital to talk with them. An MIT study (1) finds that “engaging children in conversation is more important for brain development than ‘dumping words’ on them.” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2), “promotion of optimal early brain and child development is essential for the health and well-being of children. During these critical first few years of life, safe, stable, and nurturing relationships are critical to healthy brain development.”

More than 85% of brain growth occurs in the first three years and as a parent or caregiver, you can assist in optimizing early brain development in your children. The ways in which you interact, play and respond with children, affects the development of their brain. In a study published by Harvard University’s Division of Medical Science and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, children scored an average of 12 percent higher on standard language assessment when they were exposed to a significant conversation (1).

The MIT scientists studied the number of ‘conversational turns’ experienced by young children and how they were related to brain development by documenting activity levels of the Broca area of the brain. A ‘conversation turn’ can be simple or complex. For a young child, asking a simple question and getting a response is a turn. Counting these turns can help parents and caregivers ensure they are conversing, not just providing instructions to a child. The study results provide the first evidence that family conversation has a direct impact on brain development in children.

How can you increase the number of these critical ‘conversations turns’ you have with young children?

Infants. Newborn brains have almost the full lifetime of neurons, so newborns are primed to start learning. Ways to help promote infant brain development include talking, reading, playing music and holding the infant. Talking with infants is challenging as they are observing in order to learn how to interact. To make it conversational, repeat back sounds the infant makes and add additional words to help with language development. As the child’s speech and vocabulary improve, ask them questions and encourage them to respond.

Toddlers. Toddlers, aged one through three years old, have an increased desire to explore new things and like to imitate the behavior of caregivers and others. At this point, the brain begins to slow down the production of neuron connections, however, it is still producing much more than in adulthood. At this age, it is easier to hold back and forth conversations. Encourage taking turns, by asking questions and waiting for the child to answer. When telling stories, take turns describing what could happen next, building on what was just shared.

Sponsored by Ohio State University, a 2019 study found a ‘million word gap’ for children who aren’t read to at home. Although focused on reading, the gap also identifies a difference in hearing words spoken. By conversing with children on a range of topics, children can hear more words from parents and caregivers. Instead of having the same chats about meals and playtime, caregivers can tell stories about the lives of grandparents or talk about the animals at the zoo. The goal is to share new words with young children, expanding their vocabulary. With a bit of focus, caregivers can tell a story about how a poodle and a greyhound had an adventure at a national park, expanding the words and depth of the story beyond a quick tale about two dogs on a neighborhood walk. Having the children participate by providing their own stories or answering questions about your story helps create ‘conversation turns’.

To learn more, a Brain Development course is available with enrollment in the Professional Childcare program at


1. Gabriele, J, Romeo, R. “Back and Forth Exchanges Boost Children’s Brain Response to Language”, Psychological Science 14 February 2018.

2. Zimmerman FJ, Gilkerson J, Richards JA, Christakis DA, Xu D, Gray S, Yapanel U. “Teaching by Listening: The Importance of Adult-Child Conversations to Language Development”, American Academy of Pediatrics, 124(1). July 2009, pp. 342-3499.

3. Jessica AR, Logan LM, Justice MY, Leydi JCM. “When Children Are Not Read to at Home”, Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 4 April 2019;

Language Development Milestones for a Three-Year-Old Child

Young children need to be engaged in language rich experiences with families and caregivers in order to develop age appropriate speech and language skills.

Three-year-olds have a lot to say! As infants, children listen to sounds and words in their environment, practice how to make sounds and words, learn new words, and make sentences so that they can interact with the world around them. Talk, talk, talk! Young children need to be engaged in language-rich experiences with families and caregivers in order to develop age-appropriate speech and language skills.

There are two main types of language, receptive and expressive. Receptive language explores how a child understands what he/she hears and sees. A typically developing three-year-old can show a variety of receptive language skills. Language milestones for a typically developing three-year-old child include the ability to understand:

  1. 1000 vocabulary words or more
  2. Concept words, (e.g., location, size, numbers and feelings)
  3. Names of family members
  4. How to use objects
  5. Yes/no questions
  6. Basic “wh” questions, (e.g., what, where, who, when, how).

A young child of this age can also answer yes/no questions and basic “wh” questions as well as ask a variety of simple questions. This is also the age when children begin to tell their own personal stories (Lanza, Flahive, 2008).

woman coloring with a child

Expressive language examines how a child uses words, gestures, sentences, and writing to send a message. Expressive language milestones for a typically developing three-year-old child including the use of 3-4 words in a sentences and the ability to use nouns, verbs, pronouns, plurals, and past tense verbs. A child should also be able to listen to and understand simple stories, songs, conversations, and follow multi-step directions (Lanza, Flahive, 2008).

Language does not develop at the same rate for every child, however, there are certain “red flags” that signal possible delays. These can occur in one or both areas of language, receptive and/or expressive language. Receptive concerns include a child’s difficulty with:

  1. Looking and pointing to objects and pictures
  2. Maintaining eye contact
  3. Following directions
  4. Understanding questions
  5. Taking turns in a conversation.

Expressive language concerns look different and maybe noticeable to families and caregivers. They include difficulty with:

  1. Asking questions
  2. Answering questions
  3. Naming objects
  4. Pointing or whining instead of using words
  5. Combining 3-4 words in a sentence
  6. Vocabulary development (ASHA).

Language delays are the most common type of developmental delay in children. Statistics indicate that one out of five children will learn to talk later than their peers (Healthy Children, 2011). The research indicates that there are a variety of causes of a language delay. Sometimes the cause is unknown, but here are some of the more common causes:

  1. One of the first things to rule out is a hearing difficulty or loss. Many young children have ear infections which can cause inconsistent hearing or a hearing loss. If a child cannot hear consistently, then he will not develop language in a normal way. Any hearing concerns can be easily identified by certified professional Audiologist.
  2. A child’s environment can also cause a language delay. If a child is not spoken to or does not hear others speaking, he will not learn the language or how to use language appropriately.
  3. Another cause may be prematurity. When a baby is born prematurely this may lead to developmental delays, possibly including a language delay.
  4. In addition, neurological problems like cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and traumatic brain injury may affect the muscles needed for speaking, thus causing a delay.
  5. Autism also affects communication. Communication problems are often an early sign of autism.

Gay couple playing with their child in the garden

Families who have concerns about their child’s language development should speak with the pediatrician and seek out the help of a certified professional Speech-Language Pathologist (Mott Children). Whether a child has a language delay or not, there are strategies and activities that all caregivers and families should use to promote language in children.

There are many practical everyday activities that promote language development in young children. The easiest way to encourage language development is to speak clearly to the child and model good speech. Children learn from their models. It is important to repeat what the child says, to indicate understanding, and then add on to what he says, modeling longer sentences. Activities for encouraging language development in young children include: reading repetitive books, singing songs, reciting nursery rhymes, engaging in finger plays, asking questions that include a choice, (e.g., “Do you want cookies or brownies?”), and helping the child learn new words [e.g., naming body parts and talking about what you do with them]. (ASHA, 2016). Family members and caregivers should make time to play with young children one-on-one, turn off the television, and reduce or eliminate screen time. Children learn a language when people talk to them, so talk about the things you do together, and the places you go (Parents Choice).

Language is an important tool that allows a child to communicate with his parents, peers and other people in his environment. Language helps a child grow into a person who can socially interact with others throughout life. It is critical that a child develops appropriate language skills at a young age and that families and caregivers engage in language-rich activities to promote the development of these skills.

To learn more, a Preschool course is available with enrollment in the Intermediate Childcare program at



Activities to Encourage Speech and Language Development. (2016). Retrieved March 29, 2019, from
Best Strategies to Stimulate Your 3-year-old’s Language Development. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2019, from
Causes of Speech and Language Delays. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2019, from
Language Delays in Toddlers: Information for Parents. (2011, November 18). Retrieved from
Lanza, J., Flahive, L. (2008). LinguiSystems Guide to Communication Milestones. IL: LinguiSystems.
Preschool Language Disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved April 2, 2019, from

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