Top tips to help get your tot talking Boy-drums-speech-280

Concerned your tot isn't talking as much as she should be? Just get her involved and she soon will be, says leading speech therapist Nicola Lathey

Nicola Lathey is mum to Jess, 4 years old, and she is a speech therapist who runs a speech and feeding clinic in Oxford and is co-author of Small Talk: Simple ways to boost your child's speech and language development from birth. She is a contributor to The Little Book of Weaning, and is here to answer your questions about speech.

1. What age can you expect your baby to start saying first words?

First words are usually heard between 12 and 18 months, often once a baby has started walking. By 18 months a baby should have 10 to 20 attempts at real words – this includes animal noises and utterances that maybe only close family members can understand. But before real words actually appear, your baby will have gone through many 'pre-verbal' stages.

At 6-weeks-old, your baby will start saying little vowel sounds ah or uh for instance which get more and more elaborate until 5 to 7 months when a baby starts to use babble – firstly continuous babble e.g. ba ba ba ba ba, then variegated babble at 7 to 9 months which is two different sounds together e.g. ba du or unfortunately in my daughter's case "bu ga". And lastly at 9 months plus, conversational babble which is the kind of babble where a baby sounds like they're talking in a foreign language – only when these pre-verbal stages are mastered do real words appear.

2. What help can you give your tot to encourage speech?

Mealtimes are a great time to stop what you are doing, sit down and chat to your baby and listen to their babble – babies love to chat! Pull your baby's highchair up to the table at family meals so they can join in. Watch as they chat away, point and laugh along with you all. When you are on your own with your baby, talk about what you can see - both out of the window and on your plate, and what you're doing or what your plans are for the day. It's good to talk!

Many people believe that weaning can help speech and language development, you can read about in the The Little Book of Weaning. When you say the phonetic sound 'mmm' out loud, it involves raising up your jaw so that your lips meet each other and tightening your lips together. When do we get the most practice in opening and closing the mouth, and exercising the jaw muscle? When we are sucking and chewing. And when do we get the most practice in tightening our lips together? When we close our lips around a spoon to take food from it. This is why chomping is great practice for chattering.

Here are some of my top tips to encourage babbling:

1. Say 'dip, dip, dip', 'yum, yum' or 'Daddy. Da da da Daddy'.

By making these babble sounds over and over again, your baby's brain is establishing robust and efficient pathways from their mouth to their brain – effectively wiring up the brain ready for speech!

2. Before you wipe their mouth. Encourage your baby to lick the food residue away – a good way to get that tongue moving in preparation for talking.

3. Let your baby explore their food with their hands and mouth. Licking their food will strengthen their tongue, and a strong tongue may also help them to articulate clear and crisp speech sounds.

4. When you talk about the food and what your baby is doing while they are eating, licking or smearing, laughing or babbling, you will be helping your little one to expand their language.

5. Make a mmmm sound. Rest the spoon on the baby's lower lip so that they have to move their jaw up and down to take the food off the spoon. Start off with a fairly flat spoon, moving towards a deeper spoon, so that over time your child has to close their lips further to receive the food. This may help them to develop the the 'p', 'b' and 'm' sounds which are made by closing your lips together, so why not model the sound 'mmmmm' for your baby as you put the spoon into their mouth.

6. Try experimenting with different textures of food. This will increase the sensation in the mouth which is thought to impact on the ability to move the muscles in the mouth in preparation for speech.

3. At what point should you seek advice if your little one isn't talking?

Our usual advice is to seek help if your little one hasn't got 50 words or attempts at words by 2-years-old, but if you are worried you can ring the speech therapy department directly or go to your health visitor at any time.

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