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There is a saying that as a parent, you are your child’s first teacher. This is very true in terms of communication and language development. There are two broad categories of communication- receptive (receiving and understanding communication) and expressive (conveying communication through speech, signing, writing, etc.). You can start helping your child with both types of communication skills early on and set the stage for later learning, including reading.

Talk to your baby — all day long, and about anything. Narrate what you see on walks; describe everyday activities such as dressing, eating, and bathing. Use lots of facial expressions and feel free to use a high-pitched sing-songy voice, which is very engaging to babies. Research has shown that the sheer number of words a young child hears is connected to brain development, so talk away. Expose your child to both languages if you have a bilingual household.

Encouraging two-way communication is important at any age. For a newborn, this might mean cooing back and forth, responding with smiles and laughter and imitating sounds. As kids get older, answer your child’s questions or expand on what she says. Sentences can be restated back in longer, more detailed form. For example, if he says, “bird up,” you might say, “Yes, the blue bird is up in the sky.” Don’t criticize or correct your child, but just model correct speech instead.

Reading should be part of every child’s (and adult’s) day. Start reading to your newborn and make it a habit, perhaps a couple of books as part of the bedtime routine. By kindergarten age, aim for 20 minutes of reading a day and increase from there. When your child is learning to read, you can do shared reading time; that is, taking turns reading to one another. Ask questions about what you are reading, such as how does it make your child feel, what would they do if they were the character in the book, etc. This encourages two way communication, imagination and even empathy.

Music and singing are enjoyable at any age and strengthen language skills. They help your child learn rhythm, expand vocabulary and boost brain development. If you are in a bilingual household, play and sing music from both cultures. Pre-schoolers and school-aged children are ready for music lessons as well. Play of any kind, be it imaginary play, board games or just acting silly, also builds good communication skills.

Avoid too much “screen time” (smartphone, computer, TV, video games, etc.) your child as well as yourself. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no ‘screens’ under age 2 years of age (except for occasional video chat), no more than 1 hour daily for 2-4 year olds and a 2 hour limit after that. Limits are important for parents, too. When a parent is looking at a screen instead of interacting with their child they are missing opportunities to connect. Research has shown that the more handheld screen time parents reported, the greater the risk of expressive language delays in their toddlers.

Encouraging communication skills is all about your connection to your child. Have fun reading, playing, singing and chatting — and feel good knowing that you are helping your child build skills that last a lifetime.

Dr. Elise Herman is a pediatrician at Ellensburg Pediatrics/KVH.


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