One of the most frustrating things about becoming a new mama was learning a new language.
You read that right. I knew, of course, that my newborn wasn’t equipped to speak with me from birth, but I still expected to be able to communicate with her intuitively with my motherly instincts.
It turned out that my instincts weren’t as honed as I had thought. I found myself basically needing to learn a whole new language, one without words.
As someone who loves words and already speaks English and French, learning to communicate without words was a challenge.
As a new mama, you too will need to learn the language of your baby. In this article, I am going to help you understand just how to begin to communicate with your preverbal baby.
Grab a coffee with me. Let’s have a virtual chat about virtually chatting.
What do I mean by preverbal?
First, I really think it’s necessary to explain what I mean by preverbal.
A preverbal baby is expected to one day be able to communicate through language, but hasn’t yet developed the capability.
At first, I began writing this article about “nonverbal” babies, but after a little bit of research, I realized I was using the wrong term! An important distinction to make is that a nonverbal child can make sounds (vocalizations) but will not eventually develop speech with words.
How preverbal babies communicate to you without words
They cry. A LOT.
But fortunately, there’s more to it than that! Let’s talk about the crying first, and then we’ll explore other ways that babies communicate without words.
As a new mama, I quickly learned that there are different types of cries. If I paid attention by really listening to the pitch and pattern of her cries, I could tell if C wanted to change her position, if she was hungry, colicky, or just tired.
At around 2 months, your baby will start vocalizing in a way other than crying—hooray! The earliest vocalizations are otherwise known as cooing (in French, this is called making an areuh). Babies are making their first vowel sounds by cooing and this is how they practice using the muscles in their mouth required for speech.
Babies are imitating us, but not just our speech. They quickly learn our facial expressions and adopt them as their own. Even from birth, babies may make their own facial expressions, although beware that some of them are involuntary. Sourires aux anges, or smiling at the angels, is the French expression for those reflexive smiles you see in newborns as they’re sleeping.
I waited for what seemed like ages for C to make a real smile. It was the first sign to me that all was well and she was happy—and that I must have done something right!
Babies flail around a lot. Arms and legs go swinging. Gestures can be a simple outburst of energy, but they can also be your baby’s way of communicating. If I paid attention to her gestures, I could tell whether C was getting hungry or was feeling uncomfortable from digestion.
Newborns can say a lot without words. What is your preverbal baby trying to communicate to you with his cries, coos, facial expressions, and gestures?
I’m too hot or too cold
I want to change positions
I’m in pain
As you can see, that’s a pretty wide range of emotion already. It won’t be obvious to you right away what your baby is trying to tell you. It takes a lot of observation and learning your baby’s preverbal cues to understand which of the above emotions he is experiencing. Be patient with yourself and your baby and trust me, in time you will understand.
How you can communicate with your preverbal baby
So how do you, the verbal mama, communicate with your preverbal baby?
You can still use words! But also try to pay attention to your own body language.
Observe your baby
The first and most important step is to observe your baby and try to understand him or her. Get yourself into the habit of being on the receiving end of the communication channel. Watch your baby. Listen to your baby. See if you can pick out patterns in his behavior. Is he trying to communicate something to you by gesturing or crying?
Make eye contact
Making eye contact is key to successful, positive communication. Make eye contact both when you observe your baby (as you are receiving her communication) and when you respond by communicating back to her. By making eye contact, you are actually syncing your brainwaves with your baby and fostering his learning.
Use sign language
Babies use gestures, and so do we as adults. Sometimes our gestures are so automatic that we don’t even realize we’re gesturing at all.
Why not try to use sign language with your baby? Babies constantly observe us. If you couple a sign with a word, it will help your baby to learn the word more quickly, even if she cannot say it yet.
You don’t even need to buy a book about “baby sign language” to know how to sign and which signs to use with your baby. There is no right or wrong way, because adding signs (gestures) to your communication with your baby is simply to accelerate the understanding between you. Make up your own signs and use them consistently.
Don’t forget to observe your baby for clues that they are trying to sign to you—we often wait for babies to begin using speech, but if you are using signs with your baby, you need to remember to watch out for this “speech” from them as well!
“Are you tired? Are you hungry?”
Ask how your baby is feeling and pay attention to their preverbal response. But also:
“Can I change your diaper? Can I pick you up?”
Asking for permission is a method used in RIE parenting, also known as respectful parenting. Use the same rule of thumb for your baby as if you were caring for an older relative. You wouldn’t just pick them up from their bed, for example, without asking first.
Personally, I found a lot of success in asking C if she wanted to be picked up. She understood what it meant very quickly, and responded to me without words if she wanted to be held or not. Using this simple method really validated the connection I had with my preverbal baby and reassured me that we understood each other.
Describe anything you can think of while remaining relevant to the context. For example, one day, I was making chocolate chip cookies, and C was next to me in her bouncer. I described each step of the recipe to her out loud. I am sure she didn’t understand what I was saying, but I was communicating to her and I could tell she was receptive because she was watching and listening.
Before C could talk, I used to like describing the weather to her in the morning when I opened her shutter. You could describe the animals you pass in the car on your way to the supermarket. You could describe the people in photos, or the illustrations in books. There really are no limits.
Something others have found success with is warning their babies of something that could scare them. For example, if your baby cries when you close your car door, you could say something like, “Slam!” and eventually, your baby will come to expect the sound of the door associated with that word. Just the warning is sometimes enough to eliminate that sudden fear.
Some people will tell you to gesticulate wildly or to use “baby talk,” like a high-pitched voice. Basically, act like a baby so she’ll understand you better.
Unless you really want your baby to learn to gesticulate wildly or to use a high-pitched voice, I do not recommend these methods.
I much prefer to act naturally around my baby and to just be myself. You don’t have to act like a baby in order to be understood by one. Your baby will understand you if you are just your normal self.
As a little caveat to acting naturally, you can slow down your speech if necessary. Do it only as you would for a friend who didn’t understand what you just said. Don’t constantly communicate in first gear, unless it’s normal for you. It’s not about “dumbing down” your speech as much as it is enunciating clearly, and loudly/slowly enough while not sounding unnatural.
Ways to encourage language development in your preverbal baby
There is no need to “force” your child to say anything. All babies are different and some may take more time to develop speech. Here are some ways that you as a mama can encourage your baby’s language development.
Reading books out loud with your baby will help them learn vocabulary through repetition and inspire their imagination through storytelling.
For learning vocabulary, I really recommend books whose topics can be found in and around your home. For example, C really learned quickly from books about typical farm animals (cow, horse, duck) because we live in a country setting, and she could see these animals from our house or from our car. It’s much harder for her to learn the words for exotic animals (tiger, zebra, elephant) because we don’t have any real-life examples in Normandy outside of a zoo.
We are predisposed to pay attention to music because we naturally want to engage with the combination of sounds and rhythm. You can use tempo to stimulate your baby or calm him down.
You can choose instrumental music or music with lyrics. Clearly, listening to music with lyrics helps encourage vocabulary learning. Nursery rhymes in particular are well-suited for babies and young children. Sing along, of course! We know that movement also facilitates learning, so feel free to also dance along!
For your bilingual baby, use music to your advantage and listen to songs in different languages.
It may seem obvious, but your baby should hear you speaking regularly. Like I mentioned above, speak naturally. There is no need to narrate anything and everything just for your baby to hear the sound of your own voice. Speak if you feel compelled to speak, not to simply fill the silence. You are teaching your baby that speech is intentional, not random, and that you are trying to connect.
It’s a learning curve
To be honest, I didn’t try to communicate as hard as I should have when C was born. Half the time I had no clue what she needed, even when I tried my best to understand. (It comes back to what I said: sometimes babies just need to cry!)
It takes time and practice, but with the right approach, you can learn to communicate with your preverbal baby. In the beginning, spend a lot of time observing your baby and trying to find patterns in her gestures and sounds. Then you can communicate back through your own gestures and words.
Remember, this is the preverbal time. Eventually your baby will be able to understand your speech without being able to respond—yet! Encourage your baby’s language development and you will soon see that you are both speaking the same language.
Time to let me know how you communicate with your preverbal baby! I know I was so proud when I suddenly could distinguish the “I’m hungry” cry! How about you? Share your wins below!