When toddlers have a hard time learning to talk, we often think about enrolling them in speech therapy. And while seeing a speech-language pathologist may, indeed, be an important part of boosting a toddler’s language skills, some of the most important language-building moments often occur outside of that toddler’s scheduled speech therapy sessions.
We know that routines can be a powerful way to build a child’s language skills; when toddlers hear the same language in the same parts of their day, each day, it can help them to understand and use that language more effectively. Routines-based intervention has been shown to lead to increases in the language skills of children who struggle to learn language (Brown & Woods, 2015). Little ones also learn best when engaging in warm, caring interactions with their parents (Center for The Developing Child at Harvard University, 2017). Further, we know that parent-implemented intervention works! Study after study shows that parents can be very effective in building their child’s language skills (Buschmann, et al., 2009; Buschmann, A., Multhauf, Hasselhorn, & Pietz, J., 2015; Ha, 2015; Roberts & Kaiser, 2011; Roberts & Kaiser, 2015). Bedtime becomes a perfect time to build language, simply because it is a routine activity that happens each day, with the people that the toddler loves the most.
Speech-language therapy visits only last for about 60 minutes each week; this represents just 1% of a young child’s waking hours. Integrating language-learning opportunities into a toddler’s daily activities, however, drastically increases the number of learning opportunities available to a child. If a toddler engages in just ten daily activities and there are just five learning opportunities embedded into each activity, we’ve now provided the child with 350 learning opportunities in one week!
So how do we build language at bedtime? One simple way is to pick five to ten words to model during bedtime each night; just saying these same words over and over during interactions with a child can help to grow his understanding and use of language. In studies completed by Girolametto, Pearce, & Weitzman (1996, 1997), for example, parents of children with expressive language delays picked ten target words to use around their children each day. These parents were taught to weave these words into routines and use the words repeatedly within those routines. The authors found that, just by hearing these words repeatedly produced by their parents inside of interactive daily routines, the toddlers began to use more words. What’s more, the toddlers also began to produce more speech sounds! When deciding upon the words to model during bedtime, we might pick from some of the following developmentally appropriate words (MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories: Words and Gestures, 2007):
During snack time: cracker, food, apple, banana, cheerios, cheese, cookie, milk, water, juice, eat, drink, cup, plate, spoon, more, all done, please
During tooth brushing: teeth, cup, water, toothbrush, hot, cold, on, off, open
During bath time: bath, water, ear, eye, fingers, foot, hand, hair, knee, head, leg, nose, toe, tummy, towel, splash, wash, wipe, hot, cold, wet, clean, on, off, up, out
While getting undressed/dressed or during diaper changes/potty: diaper, potty, pajamas, shirt, pants, sock, on, off
During books: open, book, read, various animal names or common objects from the books
In bed: bed, blanket, pillow, night-night, hug, kiss, sleep, tired
Singing simple, repetitive songs can be another way to build a child’s language during bedtime. Songs have been used as a part of effective parent-implemented intervention approaches (Buschmann, et al., 2015). The use of songs to facilitate language development often works best when singing songs that include gestures, because gestures and language development go hand-in-hand (Capone & McGregor, 2004). For example, a parent might sing “Wheels on the Bus” during bath time; this can be a fun time to sing this song because parents can splash a bit as they make the motions to the song.
Books can also be an integral part of a bedtime routine designed to promote language development. Book-reading can be a fabulous way to build both language and pre-literacy skills; interactive book-reading has been demonstrated to be an important part of effective parent-implemented intervention approaches (Buschmann, et. al, 2009; Buschmann, et al., 2015). It’s important for parents to know they don’t have to just read the words in a book. Instead, books can be part of an interactive conversation time. Parents can pause during book reading to allow children to point to or talk about pictures that are interesting to them; parents can then respond by describing what their toddler is pointing at or talking about (Oh, look at the cat! He’s in the tree. Silly cat!”). Parents can ask also questions (“How will that cat get down?”) and use simple language to make comments about the things that are happening in the book. Making book reading an interactive experience can be a very effective way of keeping toddlers engaged in books and, at the same time, boosting their language skills.
Finally, parents can provide their child with opportunities to use gestures, signs, or words inside of their bedtime routine. Embedding communication temptations into routines can be a powerful way to help a child learn the power of communication. One easy way to embed communication temptations into a bedtime routine is to give a child lots of choices along the way. During snack time, a little one can choose between two snacks or two drinks; during tooth-brushing she can choose which cup to use; during bath time, she can choose her bath toys or dictate which body part gets washed next; later, she can choose the order in which her PJs are put on, the book she reads, the songs she sings, the spots where mom and dad give kisses each night. In each of these moments, parents can hold up and/or describe one of the two choices (“Do you want milk? Or water?” “Should I kiss your nose or cheek?”) and then wait for the child’s response. At first, a child might just point to what she wants. That’s okay! Parents can then say the word for what the child wants (“Oh, you want milk! Here’s milk. You love milk!) and move forward with the choice the child has made.
Over time, with repeated opportunities to make choices like this and gentle encouragement to use the language attached to the choices they make, children will frequently start using sounds, and then words, and then phrases, inside those moments. Parents can encourage their child to use a form of language that is just slightly more advanced than usual. For example, if a child typically doesn’t communicate at all, a parent can encourage gestures; if a child usually uses gestures, the parent can encourage spoken words or signs; if a child usually uses single words, parents can model and encourage two-word phrases. This type of enhanced milieu teaching procedure has been proven to build the language skills of toddlers – both late-talkers and children with more significant diagnoses such as developmental delay, Down Syndrome, and autism spectrum disorders (Brown and Woods, 2015; Roberts & Kaiser, 2011; Roberts & Kaiser, 2015).
There are a great many ways to build language during bedtime. Each of them holds potential for language learning. Best of all, parents who use these strategies aren’t only building language, they’re also building a loving relationship with their child. In using these strategies, then, parents are setting their child up for a lifetime of learning!
Becca Jarzynski, M.S., CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and a Clinical Instructor at UW- Eau Claire. You can find more of her blog posts at www.talkingkids.org.
Brown, J. and Woods, J. (2015). Effects of a triadic parent-implemented home-based communication intervention for toddlers. Journal of Early Intervention, 37 (1), 44-48.
Buschmann, A., Multhauf, B., Hasselhorn, M., Pietz, J. (2015). Long-term effects of a parent-based language intervention on language outcomes and working memory for late-talking toddlers. Journal of Early Intervention, 37 (3), 175–189
Buschmann, A. Jooss, B., Rupp, A., Feldhusen, F. Pietz, J. & Philippi, H. (2009). Parent-based language intervention for 2-year-old children with specific expressive language delay: A randomized controlled trial. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 94, 110-116
Capone, N. and McGregor, K. (2004). Gesture Use: A Review for Clinical and Research Practices. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 47, 173-186.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2017). Three principles to improve outcomes for children and families. Retrieved from: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/three-early-childhood-development-principles-improve-child-family-outcomes/#responsive-relationships
Girolametto, L., Pearce, P.S., & Weitzman, E. (1996). Interactive focused stimulation for toddlers with expressive vocabulary delays. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 39(6), 1274-1283.
Girolametto, L., Pearce, P.S., & Weitzman, E. (1997). Effects of lexical intervention on the phonology of late talkers. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 40 (2) 338-348.
Ha, S. (2015). Effectiveness of a parent-implemented intervention program for young children with cleft palate. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 79, 707-715.
MacArther-Bates Communicative Developmental Inventories (2007). Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing.
Roberts, M. And Kaiser, A. (2015). Early intervention for toddlers with language delays: A randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics, 135 (4). DOI: 10.1542/peds.2014-2134
Roberts, M. & Kaiser, A. (2011). The effectiveness of parent-implemented language intervention: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 20, 180-199