How to nurture your child's speech and language development

language development

Speech, language and communication skills are an important part of overall child development and wellbeing; they provide a foundation for learning and contribute to your child's ability to manage emotions, communicate feelings, build relationships and learn to read and write. For more about these milestones and others, sign up to receive the Mumsnet child emails for every stage of your child's development. You'll also find a number of ways to encourage their speech development in this article.

Early language development affects many areas of your child's overall development. It contributes to your child's ability to manage emotions and communicate feelings, to establish and maintain relationships, to think symbolically, and to learn to read and write.

How can I nurture my child's speech and language development?

As a parent, there's a lot you can do to encourage your child's language skills. The process of language learning starts in the womb, when babies begin to respond to familiar sounds and touch, and carries on well into childhood. So, from their first 'ga ga' to mastering 'mummy', it's important to see your child's communication development as an ongoing, cumulative journey, rather than something that will happen over night, or even over a couple of years.

Does talking to my bump when I'm pregnant help my baby's language development?

pregnant woman

Spending time talking to your bump may feel ridiculous unnatural at first, but it is a great way of building a bond with your baby and introducing them to the world outside. It will also help you develop the habit of talking to your baby once they're born.

Signs of language development in babies

Babies are born ready to communicate and will quickly recognise your face, the sound of your voice and familiar music. Behaviours like crying and cooing are your baby's way of letting you know how they feel (we'll admit that this isn't always what you want to hear when your baby won't stop screaming at 3am, but still). Spending time getting to know your baby and responding to their early noises and gestures will help you recognise your baby's needs, making them feel safe and secure and building your relationship with each other.

Babies love it when you smile and make eye contact with them – this helps them learn how to be sociable. When your baby gurgles or coos, repeat it back to them and have a conversation together – this rewards their early attempts to communicate and will give them confidence. These early sounds will then develop into babbling and copying sounds. Babies will have great fun trying out new ways to communicate with you.

Gestures like waving, pointing, nodding and shaking your head are all ways to communicate with your baby and, in time, your baby will copy these gestures. Pointing is a significant milestone for communication, as babies learn that they can share their interests with others. Between seven and 14 months, most babies start using single words which then develop into short sentences. Over time children are able to communicate using complex sentences and engage in abstract thinking.

Practical ways parents can nurture their child's language skills:

mother baby smiling

These are some of the ways parents can encourage their child's language skills. It is likely that you will do many of these without thinking about it.

  • Spend time talking to your baby throughout the day. It doesn't matter that they are unable to talk back to you, as they will respond in other ways. This gives your baby a language-rich environment with lots of opportunity to hear words and conversation.
  • Simply describe what you are doing with them throughout the day. For example, when taking a bath or changing their nappy. Babies understand a large number of words before they can speak.
  • Give your baby time to hear your voice and make noises without the TV, radio or other background noise.
  • Share books, magazines, birthday cards or any other reading matter with your baby. It's never too early to start reading together. Talk about the pictures and point to what your baby is interested in.
  • Enjoy music together. Simple nursery rhymes help your baby learn about the rhythm in language. Actions are also important to help them understand the words.
  • Follow your baby's lead and play with what they are interested in. Join in with them and talk about what you are doing together – this helps them match words to objects.
  • Get down to your baby's level when playing and talking. Make eye contact and give them your full attention.
  • When your baby starts to use words, you can elaborate on their early speech, to increase the variety of words and sentence structure that children hear. For example, when your baby says 'dog', you might extend this by saying, 'Yes, it's a big dog'.
  • As children get older you can start to draw your child's attention to different sources of words in the environment to help them make the link between spoken and printed words.
  • You can build a language-rich environment at no cost or low cost by giving your child opportunities to share books, toys and experiences that promote early language. For example, by joining the library, visiting the park or involving your child in grocery shopping and chatting with your child during the experience.

Is my child's development normal?

There is a wide variation in the rate of normal language development. Some children will be slow to speak and will then catch up, whereas others may start well and then gradually fall behind. In England, 5-8% of all children have a language impairment when they start school and this can affect their ability to learn and progress in school.

There are many reasons for these speech delays, including:

  • hearing loss
  • neurological impairment
  • autistic spectrum disorders
  • learning disabilities
  • 'word gap', where exposure to fewer words results in limited vocabulary
  • limited access to books, toys and educational experiences

What can I do if I am worried about my child's language development?

As a parent, you are an expert in your child's health and wellbeing. If you are worried about your child's development at any age before they start school, you should contact your local health visiting team for advice and support. The earlier a problem is recognised, the greater the opportunity to take action to help your child.

All children are offered a series of health reviews by their local health visiting team as part of the government's Healthy Child Programme. These reviews are not a test of any sort; they provide an opportunity to discuss your child's achievements and review your child's development. You can also discuss any concerns that you may have and identify any additional support that your child may need to encourage their language skills.