The baby talk dance
By Carol Harding
Around the time of my son Christopher’s first birthday, he and I would sit together watching the sparkling colors in our aquarium. Chris would touch the glass, saying “fish, fish” over and over again. I remember him looking at me, then at the fish, and saying “lookatthat” as if it were one word. These were Chris’ favorite words and he used them often. They also became favorites of mine as I joined his “conversation” saying things like, “Yes, let’s look at that fish” and “Wow, look at that one.” Chris and I were doing the communication dance and we loved it.
Baby talk isn’t just about what babies say or what we say to them. It’s also about how we say words and the feelings that are behind them. Researchers talk about “conversational turns” being similar to the choreographed steps of dance partners. Both take many small steps, follow one another’s lead, and enjoy improvising.
The dance leading to language and communication development begins very early in our baby’s life. Probably the first time you held your baby, you noticed her yawns and wiggles and said something like, “Are you feeling tired already?” or “I bet you’re eager to eat something, aren’t you?” Your words fit into her movements with ease and you found yourself “dancing” with her naturally, using your words to respond to and initiate her movements.
Child development researchers like Daniel Stern (author of Diary of a Baby, The First Relationship, and The Birth of a Mother) have observed that humans are natural “baby talk” dancers. Parents and babies together seem to have a natural feel for coordinating their sounds and movements into communicative patterns. In our own research, my colleagues and I have used the term “shared minds” to describe the way mothers and their babies begin to share what they look at, how they feel, and how they think and talk about things.
Here are some helpful hints for enjoying conversations with your baby:
1) Take plenty of time for the baby talk dance
Quiet time before and after naps, mealtime, bath time, almost any time can be good times to share early conversations. Find times without distractions when you and your baby can pay close attention to each other.
2) Make eye contact with your baby as you talk, helping him see your face clearly and watching him closely
Use words to talk about what you’re doing together. Give him time to respond to your words and to listen. Taking turns is an important part of the communication dance.
3) Talk about your baby’s sounds, movements, and expressions
From the beginning of her life, act as if your baby’s sounds are part of the conversation. Saying things like, “You must feel better after that big burp,” helps your baby recognize the importance of her own sounds and feelings.
4) Most of all, enjoy the baby talk dance
As your baby grows, you will help her learn the right word and the appropriate things to say. Additionally, being part of the conversation, knowing that others are interested in your sounds and feelings, and sharing “talk” with others are also important and necessary parts of your baby’s development.
Carol Harding is a professor emerita of human development and co-founder of the Center for Children, Families, and Community at Loyola University in Chicago.
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