Infants and toddlers are able and ready communicators. They communicate through gestures, sounds, facial expressions, movements, and language. This next section will highlight language and communication milestones for infants and toddlers. It will be followed by a section that discusses these milestones by introducing three aspects of language and communication that caregivers can think about: receptive language, expressive language, and conversation skills.
Infants’ and toddlers’ abilities to communicate grows as they interact and communicate with others. In fact, the sounds, tones, and patterns of speech that an infant hears early on sets the stage for learning a specific language. They begin to understand words, and express themselves in their language as they learn rules of conversation.
Think of how exciting it is to hear young infants making new sounds each day, hearing an infant say new words or listening to toddlers express themselves by stringing words together! The chart below highlights infant and toddler communication skills as they grow. Keep in mind that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which infants and toddlers meet these milestones and that each infant and toddler is unique. A brief version of this information aimed at parents can be found in an easy-to-use checklist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As you may have already learned in the Cognitive and Physical courses, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development, or to help you know when and what to look for as young children mature. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you can use this information, what you learn from families and your own knowledge in the interactions, experiences and environments you create for infants and toddlers.
- Makes sounds other than crying
- Reacts to loud noises
- Smiles at people when they talk or smile
- Makes cooing sounds (“ooo”, “aahh”)
- Makes sounds back when spoken to
- Turns head in the direction of your voice
- Makes sounds when looking at objects
- Responds to sounds by making sounds
- Begins to drool and create small bubbles with tongue and lips while making noises (i.e., "blowing raspberries")
- Makes squealing noises
- Begins to say consonant sounds (jabbering with “m,” “b”)
- Makes different sounds like “mamama”and "baababa"
- Lifts arms to be picked up
- Responds to own name
- Uses simple gestures like waving “bye-bye” or shaking head “no”
- Says “mama” and “dada”
- Responds to “no” (pauses briefly or stops)
- Tries to say one or two words, besides than “mama” or “dada”, like “da” for dog and “ba” for ball
- Looks for a familiar object when named
- Follow simple directions when given with gesture, (gives toy when hand is out and told, “Give me the toy.”)
- Points to ask for something
- Tries to say three or more words besides “mama” or “dada”
- Follows simple instructions without any gestures (gives toy when told, ”Give it to me.”)
- Shakes head “no”
- Points to things or pictures when they are named
- Says sentences with at least two words together like “More milk”
- Points to at least two body parts when asked
- Uses more gestures like blowing a kiss or nodding yes
- Repeats words overheard in conversation
- Says about 50 words
- Says two or more words, including one action word like, “Daddy run”
- Names things in a book when you point and ask what it is
- Says words like “I”, “me”, “we”
- Carries on a conversation using at least two or more back-and-forth exchanges
- Asks “who”, “what”, “where,” or “why" questions
- Says what action is happening in a picture book when asked like “eating” or “running”
- Says first name when asked
- Talks well enough for others to understand most of the time
- Uses sentences that are three or four words long
Learning to communicate is a unique process and specific to each infant, toddler and family. Many aspects of a child’s environment may contribute to challenges with communication development. A family may wonder about their young child’s communication and language development and feel uncertain about what they are observing, as well as what to expect. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you have an opportunity to learn first from a family and consider offering additional developmental information, including possible warning signs. The Kids Included Together can be a valuable resource for you (https://www.kit.org), as well as the developmental milestones and act early information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html. The table below also highlights possible warning signs for infants' and toddlers' language and communication development:
- Lack of interest in social contact (e.g., avoids eye contact)
- Does not respond to the human voice or other sounds
- Infant stops babbling
- Infant does not show interest in exploring and interacting with people and objects in a familiar environment
- Infant does not follow or track where you point (around 9 to 10 months)
- Infant does not show or point at objects (around 11 to 12 months)
- Has limited vocabulary
- Uses only short, simple sentences (by 36 months)
- Misunderstands questions most of the time (by 36 months)
- Others have difficulty understanding him or her most of the time (by 36 months)
- Displays fewer social skills and peer play interactions than other children at the same age (by 36 months)
How Infants and Toddlers Communicate
As you study the chart above, you may notice that some milestones are associated with infants’ and toddlers’ ability to listen to and understand language (receptive communication). Other milestones are associated with infants’ and toddlers’ ability to express themselves using sounds, movements, gestures, facial expressions, and words (expressive communication), and some are associated with infants’ and toddlers’ knowledge and ability to engage in communication exchanges with peers or adults (social engagement). Let’s take a look at how these aspects of communication unfold as part of the remarkable development of young children during their first three years.
Receptive communication refers to an infant’s or toddler’s ability to listen to and understand language. They begin to understand language as part of their nurturing relationships with responsive, trusting adults and are able to make sense of gestures, facial expressions, tone, and words well before they are able to verbally express themselves.
Expressive communication is the ability of infants and toddlers to express themselves through sounds, gestures, facial expressions and words. A beginning point for expressive communication is the infant’s cry. Cooing is another form of early communication and can begin as early as one month. By six months, you can hear new sounds like “ma,” “ba,” and “da.” By 24 months, you may hear toddlers using two- and three-word sentences, such as “me go,” or “more drink, please.”
Social engagement involves the understanding and use of communication rules such as listening, taking turns and appropriate ways to use sounds and facial expressions. Conversations involve both understanding (receptive communication) and expressing (expressive communication). Infants and toddlers learn the ways to use sounds, gestures, facial expressions and words of their family’s language(s) when adults interact, talk, read and sing with them.
Supporting Communication, Language, and Literacy
Effective communication, language and literacy skills are important to young children’s self-expression, their development of social relationships, and to their learning. The foundation for these skills begins during the earliest months and years after birth. When families and caregivers engage in and sustain interactions based on an infant’s or toddler’s development and interests, they help strengthen their role as a partner in communication. In fact, research demonstrates that these skills depend greatly on language experiences during infancy and toddlerhood. Children who hear fewer words are engaged in less conversation before age 3 with their caregivers, and have dramatically smaller vocabularies than children who have richer early language experiences (Hart & Risley, 1995). Communication and language development happen best in the context of consistent, caring and responsive relationships.
Your role as an infant and toddler caregiver offers opportunities to support these skills throughout the day. You can use your knowledge about communication and language development alongside your observations of the infants and toddlers in your care. Together, this information can create opportunities to engage infants and toddlers in communication according to their interest. For example, during mealtime with infants and toddlers, you can maintain eye contact, smile, repeat and add meaning to the infant’s sounds, or follow a toddler’s eyes as they look at the green vegetables on their plate and then say, “You’re looking at your green peas. What else is green?” Or, talk about who is sitting next to an infant or toddler. “Who is going to sit beside you today at lunch, Tommy? Oh, look, Cassandra is going to sit beside you.”
Your role as an infant and toddler caregiver also offers an opportunity to create an environment that provides what infants and toddlers need to become good communicators early in life. A communication-rich environment is characterized by intentional and frequent use of such strategies as:
- Learning about communication and language development in infants and toddlers
- Talking with and learning from families, as well as observing and identifying the developmental stage of individual infants and toddlers, and offering experiences and activities that can best support their development and learning
- Adding words and ideas to best describe infants’ and toddlers’ understanding of experiences
- Being responsive to infants’ and toddlers’ communication attempts and building on what they are expressing
- Talking with infants and toddlers about the events of the day
- Following infants’ and toddlers’ leads, cues, and preferences
- Including new words in conversations
- Embedding songs, rhymes and finger plays into daily routines and experiences
- Describing infants’ and toddlers’ actions, interests, events, or feelings
- Reading to infants and toddlers frequently and providing opportunities for them to engage with books and printed materials
- Incorporating alternative ways and systems of communication, based on individual needs (e.g., using pictures or visual cues to foster communication)
- Serve and return interactions
Serve and return interactions are another example of opportunities for caregivers to engage with infants and toddlers while fostering brain development and communication growth. Serve and return works like a game of tennis or volleyball between child and caregiver, but instead of a ball, various forms of communication are passed back and forth between the two. The child “serves” by reaching out for interaction—with eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, babbling, or touch. A responsive caregiver will “return the serve” by speaking back, playing peekaboo, or sharing a toy or a laugh. (Serve and Return 2020)
These back-and-forth exchanges increase infants’ and toddlers’ language experiences, vocabulary and opportunities for communication. Engaging in serve and return interactions are essential to the brain development of infants and toddlers and help children learn skills that are foundational for later development.
Watch the following video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University that demonstrates serve and return exchanges: https://youtu.be/KNrnZag17Ek
After viewing the video, think about the activities in your day that provide opportunities for serve and return interactions.
Understanding developmental milestones is an important aspect of working with infants and toddlers. Learning about and understanding how infants and toddlers communicate will help you know how to support them in developing effective communication and language skills and what kinds of learning experiences to plan for in your early care and learning setting. Each infant and toddler is different. Therefore, it will be important to customize experiences and activities to meet their unique needs. Consider the following for each infant and toddler in your care:
- Understand and respond to families’ needs and preferences: If a family approaches you and shares concerns about their infant’s or toddler’s development, acknowledge their concerns and encourage them to talk to the trainer. The trainer is responsible when dealing with developmental concerns and he or she will begin the process for identifying or referring the child.
Families with children under the age of 3 can contact their local early intervention program. A free evaluation of the infant’s or toddler’s development can be completed in order for the young child to receive services and support that meets his or her needs. Additionally, a pediatrician can perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to a specialist.
Learn about the tools your program uses to help understand each child’s development. For example, your program might ask families to complete tools like the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ). This tool and others like it give your program information about each child’s unique development. Talk to your trainer, coach, or administrator to learn more about the tools and processes your program uses and who to talk to if families have questions.
- Consider relationships as the foundation: Throughout your daily interactions and experiences with infants and toddlers, you can intentionally plan for opportunities to scaffold their emerging skills based on their unique strengths and needs, temperament and culture. Take time to learn from families and talk with infants and toddlers throughout daily routines; share with them what you are doing during feeding and eating, diapering and toileting, hellos and goodbyes, as well as before and after naptime.
From families, we can learn about their home language. Many families speak languages other than English at home and it’s important to honor their home language within the early care and learning setting as they learn English. This helps infants and toddlers see a connection between environments, as well as understand concepts and learn to read and write in the future. For example, simple words or phrases in their family’s language can be included and spoken within the care environment.
- Be sensitive to individual infant and toddler needs: Every infant and toddler develops communication and language skills at his or her own rate. However, infants and toddlers who are engaged by communication and language will try to listen to the sounds around them. If an infant or toddler does not respond to you while communicating or react to loud noises, these may be signs that he or she is having trouble hearing or has a developmental delay. Infants and toddlers that do not show an interest in expressive language will also need extra support in understanding their strengths and needs. If your program provides developmental screening tools, these can help you begin a conversation with families about your concerns. You should also talk to a trainer, coach, or supervisor in your program about ways to help the infant or toddler develop and learn in your early care and learning environment.
You, along with the infant’s or toddler’s family, may also decide to use sign language, additional gestures, or visuals to help an infant or toddler communicate and understand language. Sign language, for example, can offer infants and toddlers a way to communicate before they can talk which helps enhance their language development and reduce frustration. Talk to your trainer, coach, or supervisor about whether your program offers training in sign language for babies.
Some infants and toddlers may use different devices to help them hear and communicate. You can learn from the family how to use the device to continue to help the infant or toddler learn the sounds and words that make up language.
Think about the infants or toddlers in your care. Refer to the Language and Communication Developmental Milestones listed in this lesson and complete the Thinking About Communication activity. Highlight what you notice about their development and how you respond. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.
You should continue to be intentional about your interactions and the experiences you offer so that infants and toddlers can build their communication skills and enjoy experimenting with sounds and words within relationships. Complete the Caregivers Communicating with Infants and Toddlers activity. Think about the strategies you are using to support communication development in infants and toddlers. Identify specific ways you apply the various strategies as well as new ways to consider using these strategies throughout the day. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.
References & Resources
The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative . SERVE & RETURN. (2020, October 16).: https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/what-we-know/serve-and-return
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Learn the signs, act early: Developmental milestones. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/pdf/FULL-LIST-CDC_LTSAE-Checklists2021_Eng_FNL2_508.pdf
Center on the Developing Child . (2020, October 16 ). Serve and Return. Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/serve-and-return/
Greenspan, S.I. with Benderly, B.L. (1998). The Growth of the Mind. Perseus Publishing.
Hart, B., & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Brookes Publishing.
Nicholas, H., Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. (2001). Recasts as feedback to language learners. Language Learning, 51, 719-758.
Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. (2002). Ages and stages questionnaire (ASQ).https://agesandstages.com/
Smith, A. (1999). Quality childcare and joint attention. International Journal of Early Years Education, 7,85-98.
Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, (6th ed.). Pearson Education Inc.