Early Years Focus discusses the importance of listening to babies when they cry

Babies are born with an innate desire to communicate. For their survival and wellbeing they must build relationships with one or more caregivers who they can rely on to fulfil their physical and emotional needs. Although they have yet to master the complexities of spoken language, babies can nevertheless communicate very effectively in other ways. Babies use body language and facial expression to communicate what they are thinking, often mimicking the expressions which adults use when talking to them. In this way they build up a repertoire of gestures and facial movements to communicate their thoughts and emotions.

At a very basic level, crying is a way of gaining attention and signalling that all is not well. By knowing a baby well and listening carefully to the pitch and volume of his or her cries it is often possible to determine what is causing the distress – hunger, tiredness, a wet nappy perhaps. As they grow older they begin to verbalise in different ways and express their ideas through gurgling and chuckling, exploring their own voices and the sounds they can make.

Babies respond to speech from before they are born and during the first 12 months of life the area of the brain responsible for language matures. During the first 12 months of life the more opportunities a baby has to take part in conversations and hear songs and rhymes the better the connections will be in the language centre of the brain. Repetition of words increases the connections between the nerves in the brain to create a complex network which helps to process language efficiently.

The link between sound and meaning develops progressively in the second six months of life. Babies’ ‘receptive language’ – what they can understand – develops faster than their ‘expressive language’. This means they can understand simple instructions before they can speak. Around the age of 12 months there is the magic moment when a baby verbalises his or her first word. Being able to communicate verbally is a huge step forward in a baby’s developing independence, enabling the baby to communicate and express their feelings effectively. Helping babies to achieve this very important milestone in their lives is a vitally important part of the early years practitioner’s role.

Practical ideas
You can develop an environment – physical as well as emotional – which encourages babies to communicate by:

  • Creating a physical environment that is not too overwhelming. Too many colours, lots of sound and visual distractions can be confusing for young babies. A calm, ordered environment will create a peaceful atmosphere where babies will feel comfortable and at ease.
  • Take time to build strong positive relationships with the babies you care for – fulfilling the Key Person role makes this a practical reality. Get to know the family and the individual baby’s likes and dislikes, rhythms and routines and use this information to help you have meaningful conversations with the baby during the day.
  • Find time during the day to have one-to-one conversations with each of the babies in your care. Find a quiet spot in the room, make eye contact and conduct a conversation. Talk to the baby and then pause to give him or her time to respond. Exaggerated movements of the lips, face and eyebrows will make the conversation easier to follow and will often be copied by the baby as they respond to you.
  • When talking to a baby try letting the baby lead the conversation while you respond to his or her eye movements and facial expressions.
  • During the course of the day make sure babies have an opportunity to experience lots of different environments – at floor level, sitting up in a high chair, being held up to look out of the window, being out of doors. Place yourself at the same level as the baby and talk about all the different things you can both see. The more spoken language the baby hears the easier it will be for them to make connections between words and objects, building the foundation for language development.
  • Listening to music, rhymes and songs will help to develop a baby’s auditory discrimination skills. Make these focused sessions during the day when you engage fully with the babies helping them to listen and respond to the sounds they are hearing.
  • Talk to parents about the value of talking and listening to young babies. Model the skills of communicating, including using body language and facial movement, and reinforce the importance of making eye contact and participating in the to and fro of a conversation. Share with parents the songs and rhymes you use in the setting and increase your repertoire by learning the ones they use with their child at home.

Links with EYPS Standards: S2, S8, S15, S26, S27

Links with Ofsted SEF: Section 3, 4b, 4f, 4n

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2009

About the author: Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton are early years consultants, trainers and authors and edit Early Years Update (www.alcassociaciates.co.uk)