How to help your child talk and grow smarter: early language development non-verbal communication and signing

Charles Darwin recognised, back in 1872, that humans and animals show emotion through their gestures. More recently, in 1971, Albert Mehrabian published his book “Silent Messages”, suggesting that as little as 7 percent of communication relies on words. The rest depends on body language, gesture, facial expression and tone of voice. Although your baby has no real words until 12 to 18 months of age, he communicates constantly, practising many of the non-verbal skills that will smooth his path in life, as an effective communicator.


Early communication
Your newborn baby immediately communicates with you, through non-verbal crying. By the time he reaches 3 years of age, he talks in small sentences. As he makes that speedy language development journey, he combines developing motor skills with his growing intellect and social awareness to communicate. He interacts with you, his family and his widening circle of friends in any way he can find.


His first, hugely successful cries have you running towards him at top speed to feed, change or cuddle him. Every baby’s loud, shrill screams have an instant effect on his parents. Breast-feeding mothers find their milk flowing as soon as they hear them.


He notices your voice within days and soon turns towards you when you speak to him. Your words mean nothing to him at this stage but he notices whether your voice is loud of soft, angry or loving. He makes eye contact with you, learning the valuable lesson for life that non-verbal communication builds human relationships. His first social smile appears at around 3 months.


Your baby’s vocalisations begin to change. He coos with happiness and shouts with displeasure, but his first words remain a few months in the distance. In the meantime, he tries out different sounds, babbling happily in strings of nonsense sounds.


Signing
At around 6 to 9 months, he transfers objects from one hand to the other. He learns to wave “bye bye” and clap his hands. Parents sometimes like to introduce a few baby signs at this stage, such as simple signs for “eat”, “drink” and “more”. One or two small studies, described in Dr Marilyn Daniels’ “Dancing With Words”,suggest that babies who use signing show an increase in their measured IQs at the age of 8.


However, The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) website points out that little research into the long-term benefits of baby signing exists. ASHA suggests that the IQ difference between babies whose parents use signing and other babies may be due to genetic and environmental advantages from the babies’ parents.


The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in the UK advises that signing parents should always combine the signs with the spoken word.


Whether you teach specific signs to your baby or not, he recognises your non-verbal behaviour. He knows when you are anxious or stressed, and responds by becoming fractious. By the end of his first year, he may become anxious when you leave him, because he recognises your unique place in his life. He continues to use eye contact, tone of voice and gestures such as shaking his head to communicate with you. He may say his first word, and his non-verbal skills continue to develop during the rest of his early years.


References
“The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”; Charles Darwin; 1872


“Silent Messages”; Albert Mehrabian; 1971


“Dancing With Words”; Dr Marilyn Daniels; 2001


“SLTs Say Baby Signing Programmes are Not Necessary for Most Children”; RCSLT press release; 27 October 2003


The ASHA Leader; “About Baby Signing”; Brenda Seal; 2010


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I write this Communication Blog

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Frances Evesham: on the run around Europe for years, with only a husband, three children and a succession of opinionated cats to keep me out of trouble. Somerset stopped me in my tracks. Now I walk in the country and breathe sea air. I will get around to cleaning the house soon.

I've been a speech therapist, a professional communication fiend and a road sweeper. I sometimes work in the criminal courts to uphold fair questioning of people with special needs.

I smell the roses, lavender and rosemary as I cook with a glass of wine in one hand and a bunch of chillies in the other. Writing historical romances and books on communication leaves enough time to enjoy bad jokes and puns and wish I’d kept on with the piano lessons.