Updated: Oct 13, 2020
Before our little ones are born, we eagerly await their first words and wonder what they will be like. I fantasized about sharing stories and laughter with my own children and I’m experiencing it right now with my almost three year old. But did you know that there are nine pre-linguistic skills (this simply means “before words”) your baby needs before they will talk? These skills lay the groundwork for later communication and include: looking and listening, taking turns, joint attention, playing appropriately, following commands, communicative intent, imitation, and use of gestures. Read on for explanations of each plus what it might look like if your child lacks any of these.
1 Looking and Listening From birth, your baby senses and reacts to events in the environment (e.g., alerts to sound and moving objects) and communication from another person (e.g., turning head toward a voice, making/maintaining eye contact). 🚩Doesn’t consistently respond to his/her name by 12 months old 🚩Appears to have “selective hearing”, tunes out language 🚩Doesn’t show enjoyment of being around people (e.g., smile, coo, moves arms and legs excitedly, vocalize, gesture)
2 Taking turns Your baby starts to engage in back and forth interactions with another person (e.g., hand objects back and forth, plays peekaboo or ball with an adult). This is the foundation conversational turn-taking. 🚩Doesn’t consistently respond when you talk to him/her (e.g., smile, coo, moves arms and legs excitedly, vocalize, gesture) 🚩Doesn’t show reciprocity (e.g., you do something, I add something, and so on)
3 Joint attention Your baby will attend to something with you and be aware that you’re sharing the experience. This looks like you and your baby both looking at the same object and then your baby looking at you, checking in to make sure you’re seeing the same thing. 🚩Child doesn’t look at you to “check in” to see if you see what he/she does 🚩Child doesn’t follow your point when you say “look” 🚩So focused on an object that they don’t notice you or include you
4 Anticipation Your baby will anticipate what's coming next by the sounds they hear (e.g., running bath water, key in the door) and the gestures and facial expressions they see (e.g., tickles are coming). 🚩Child does not use facial expression or body language to show understanding that something is coming next when hearing a familiar sound or when you perform your part in a familiar routine or game
5 Understanding Your baby will understand early words and follow simple directions. A child has to understand words before he/she can use them. 🚩Baby does not look at familiar people or objects when named by 9 months
🚩Child unable to follow simple directions by 15 months (e.g., “come here” “sit down”) 🚩You might think your toddler is choosing not to listen or has “selective hearing”
6 Vocalizing Your child has moved from only reflexive vocalizations (e.g., crying, sneezing) to intentional vocalizations to get your attention or express wants/needs (e.g., whining or screeching so you’ll look over or while looking at a desired object) 🚩Child does not vocalize to get your attention or express a desire by 9 months
7 Imitating Your baby will start imitating facial expressions, which will evolve into imitating gestures and vocalizations (and eventually words). Learn more about imitating gestures and sounds here. 🚩Child does not imitate facial expressions, gestures, actions, or vocalizations (e.g., copy you after you show clapping, waving, brushing hair, banging on the table, etc)
8 Gesturing Your baby will use gestures before words. These can include pointing, leading you, waving hi/bye, shaking head yes/no, lifting their arms to be picked up, etc. 🚩Child does not use gestures independently (e.g., pointing, waving, shaking head yes/no) to communicate by 12 months
9 Initiation Your child will initiate interactions with you to get their wants and needs met. 🚩Child does not try to show you or give you things or “talk” to you (initiates vocalizing, gesturing, pointing) without being prompted
If you are concerned your child is missing any of these pre-linguistic skills, talk to your pediatrician. You can also message me on instagram or send me an e-mail at email@example.com.