How Babies Communicate

By Laura Davies, Speech and Language Therapist and mum

baby communication

The amount that your baby learns in their first year of life is astounding. They change from being a tiny, dependent creature into a moving, communicating, opinionated little person, with very definite likes and dislikes and ideas of their own. They may or may not be using any recognisable words yet, but this does not usually stop them from letting you know what they want! This ability to get their message across is one of the many foundation communication skills they need before they can start to learn to use words during their second year. Other key communication skills they develop during their first year are:

Attention and Listening

Babies start to focus in on and understand the meaning of every day sounds, such as the doorbell ringing or the bath running. They also learn to tune in to someone talking to them from all the other background sounds (as they find this very hard to start with, your baby will learn best when you turn off noise such as the TV or music when playing with them or talking to them).

Intentional Communication

While newborns instinctively cry to get an adult’s attention, it is not until a little later that babies learn that their actions (crying) get a deliberate response (you!)

Non Verbal Communication Skills

Before babies are able to use words, they are already excellent at communicating through body language and tone of voice, allowing parents to easily tell the difference between an angry cry, a happy giggle or some chatty babble sounds. They also tend to master some gestures as a way of getting their message across before they use words for it, such as shaking their head for no, pointing or reaching towards something they want or waving bye bye. One famously quoted statistic is that only 7% of our adult communication is from words- these other non verbal elements are therefore a very important skill to acquire.

Interaction Skills

From very early on, babies enjoy simple interactive turn taking games with their caregivers, such as anticipating what is going to happen next in a ‘ready steady go!’ game, or taking it in turns to make noises with the adult. Typically these games happen face to face, with the baby and adult looking at each other and often smiling. These types of games also pave the way for adult communication- for taking turns in a conversation, for using eye contact and facial expressions, and, most crucially, for learning interacting with other people can be fun!

Understanding of Words

At every stage, babies understand more than they are able to say. The first words babies often show they understand are the ones they hear most often, such as looking to ‘dada’ when mummy says ‘where’s daddy?’ or the ones they hear as part of their predictable daily routine, such as ‘its bathtime’ or ‘time for milk.’

The sounds of speech. Moving our lips, tongues and mouths in exactly the right order, and at the right speed to produce a word takes a huge amount of motor control, in the same way as being able to move your fingers over a piano in the right way to play a tune. As such, this takes a lot of practice, which babies carry out throughout their first year with a range of cooing and babbling sounds (along with some other sounds that parents are less fond of, such as raspberries and shrieks!)

If you’d like to learn what you can do your baby’s first year to help them build these crucial early communication skills, check out Laura’s blog post for her top tips.

Author Bio  

Laura Davies is speech and language therapist, mum and runs Chatterbabies language classes for little ones.  Her Oxford classes use fun activities such as songs, signing, sensory play, books and puppets to help develop all aspects of your child’s communication.  Find out more on the Chatterbabies website.



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