Early years

Early Communication

Babies communicate from birth. You’re communicating with, and learning from, your baby from the very beginning. Long before they understand words, babies learn to take turns, to make sounds, to show you what they like and what they dislike. Babies with Down syndrome may a bit of extra time to respond, and extra chances to practice, but your baby will learn to look at you and notice all the interesting things you say and do.

Make time for interaction, turn-taking, eye gaze and joint attention.

Just like any other baby, your baby who has Down syndrome needs you to smile, and wait for a smile back, to copy any sounds they make, and wait for the next sound.

Stopping and making time for face-to-face interaction is important. Your baby needs to learn to look and pay special attention to faces. You need to allow a bit of extra time, and extra repetition, so see if you can build it into your daily routine.

Watch the video showing face-to-face interaction:

It may take your baby a bit longer to respond, so don’t give up if you don’t get a smile back straight away. Remember that babies who have Down syndrome will need more opportunities to learn and practice new skills.

Be alert to hearing issues. All newborn babies in Ireland should have a hearing test, but if your child is not responding to sounds, he or she may be having difficulty hearing, and need to be checked again.

Receptive language – how your child understands you

Receptive language is the term that speech and language therapists use for the words, signs and gestures your child understands.

Babies who have Down syndrome can find it difficult to learn from sounds alone, so signs, gestures and facial expression can be a big help.

You can use gestures and facial expression from birth, but once your child is about six months old, start adding in a few Lámh signs. Choose words that you use often. Ideally use high-interest words connected to daily routines. So, if your child loves to have a bath, choose bath; if he loves story time, choose book!

Don’t expect your child to copy signs or sign back. Focus on adding meaning to the words that you’re using every day. It might be hard for your child to hear and remember the difference between ‘book’ and ‘cook’, for example, so adding the signs helps them to understand what’s happening and anticipate what’s coming next

It might take your child a little bit longer than usual to look away from your face and look at the object you are showing them. Wait until they have noticed the toy (or other object) before naming it, so that they gradually make the connection between the word and its meaning.

Be alert to hearing and vision issues, and seek advice if you are concerned with your baby’s ability to notice sounds or faces.

Expressive language – how your child communicates with you

Expressive language is a term that speech and language therapists use to describe the words, signs and gestures that your child uses to communicate with you.

Babies communicate from birth. You’re communicating with, and learning from, your baby from the very beginning. Initially the communication is reflexive, like crying when uncomfortable. This gradually develops into intentional communication, where your baby is making sounds and movements to try to tell you something.

You can help your baby to develop intentional communication by responding consistently to the sounds and movements they make and by adding language. We do this naturally with babies. When they cry, we talk to them as if they are deliberately trying to tell us they are hungry or need a nappy change. This kind of response helps all babies to learn. For your baby who has Down syndrome, allowing extra time and adding in facial expression, gesture or sign (as well as talking) will help.

Speech sounds

Babies make sounds. Early sounds are reflexive, like crying when uncomfortable. As your baby gets bigger, copy their sounds and facial expressions – this is the beginning of two-way communication. Encourage all sounds, but particularly encourage and respond to speech-like sounds. Early babbling and sound play is an important stage in learning to make sounds on purpose. Remember to make sounds interesting! Vary your tone of voice. Play with sounds. Moo like a cow, meow like a cat, woof like a dog.

It may be harder for your baby who has Down syndrome to copy sounds or make sounds. It can be difficult to coordinate. It’s easy to forget to keep talking when your baby doesn’t seem to be responding. The rate at which babies develop speech sounds is extremely variable. Don’t be discouraged if your baby spends a long time watching and listening.

On the other hand, some babies may benefit from focused work on speech from an early age. See and Learn speech is a programme specifically developed for children with Down syndrome, which targets early speech sound development. Talk to your speech and language therapist about whether this might be helpful for your child.

Pragmatics

Pragmatics is about how we use our language every day to communicate. We use language to connect with other people, to get something we need, to express like or dislike, to let people know we want something (or don’t!). We use language to get information, to draw attention to something, or to think out loud.

Your baby may use sounds or gestures accidentally at first, but these will form the basis of intentional communication. Noticing and responding to these early sounds and gestures will help your baby’s communication skills to develop.

Total communication

Total communication is about using and accepting all methods of communicating, not just speech. We can communicate using body language, facial expression, sign, gesture, sounds, words, pictures and objects. A total communication approach encourages you to value all the ways your baby can get a message across. Sometimes parents think that signing may reduce the baby’s need to speak. Actually, the reverse is true. People who can successfully get their message understood are more likely to keep communicating.

We recommend parents start introducing one or two Lámh signs from the time the child is around six months old. Ask if there’s a “Little Lámh” course running near you.

Further reading

Early communication skills for children with Down syndrome – a publication by Libby Kumin

Useful articles:

This article called Early communication development: How early can you start with speech and language therapy? is written by Anne Watson & DSI’s Nicola Hart and outlines how you can support communication development in your child. The article appeared in our DSI Member Magazine.

This article offers tips to parents about Using Lámh signing with babies and children who have Down syndrome. The article appeared in our DSI Member Magazine.

This article offers tips on Early Feeding for children with Down syndrome and is written by Niamh Staunton a speech and language therapist. The article appeared in our DSI Member Magazine.