Monday, January 11, 2016

The Challenges of Talking to Babies: It Gets Better

The challenges of talking to babies: it gets better
by Jennie Brown

While the concept of talking to your baby is simple and easy, that doesn't always mean it's easy to practice. I know. I'm there. With both of my children under 3 years old, I feel the constant pressure to be making the most of this developmental time.

Of course, there's a lot on this parental to-do list. I'm also trying to establish habits of good nutrition, good sleep, of good manners, of how to share with the baby sister, of being nice to friends even when you're angry. I'm trying to start a family culture rich in diverse activities and communication.

And this "talk to your babies" thing? This is yet another task. But I know the outcome is critical, and that the words I put in now can exponentially shape the amount my baby can learn and grow. So I try, anyway, despite the other list of things I have to do.

Here's some of the challenges I face and a few tips to overcome them:

1) The sacrifice of quiet
I really like to just listen to music while I drive. At home, I like to talk on the phone while I do housework. If there is a rare moment of quiet with children, isn't it nice to relish it? Here's the thing about trying to get in that thirty million words--it means that sometimes you have to cut off the music or get off the phone. It's really hard to keep conversation going if a tv is on in the background. I've learned that the time spent in the car every day is a crucial time to try and talk--even if I'm just driving my baby who doesn't have a lot of words to talk back with. 

It's a sacrifice of self, every time, but I recognize that giving up my personal time or quiet time will reap rewards for my family for generations. It will for you, too.

2) Coming up with things to talk about
So I know that I need to be talking constantly. Hourly. And talking THAT MUCH with an infant or toddler can be hard. You can look around you and narrate what you're doing, but that only lasts so long. How many times can you tell a baby, "I'm still doing the dishes?"

A few helps:
 • Talk in stories. 
Stories gives you more words to say. Stories about people they know (cousins, aunts & uncles, grandparents) work great. "Did you know that cousin Jake plays baseball? And at his last game..." "I was just talking to Grandma, and she said that..." You can dive into the past. Past stories about dating your husband or current stories about the people at work. Stories give you more words and stories are engaging.

• Explain how things works.
How cooking works. How Congress works. How crocheting works.
This is particularly valuable in narrating something you're doing--if you are explaining a process, it gets easier and more interesting and varies your vocabulary even more. Don't be afraid to explain concepts that seem above their head--your words about everything are giving their brain an important baseline and establishing connections to be made for years to come. 

• Singing. Honestly, this can be a lifesaver. When I run out of words or don't have enough energy or brainpower to come up with new things to talk about, this puts the words into my mouth for me.  I can sing kid songs and I can also sing my favorite songs.

• Books. Let those kids books put the words into your mouth and let them give you new topics to talk about. 

3) Keeping the flow of conversation going.
While it seems like I can run out of things to say quickly, it helps me to remember that listening is an important part, even with babies that only occasionally coo. Any time spent making eye contact and reacting to any communicative gesture they make is still important. It absolutely counts as talking. And that eye contact is the real clincher in engaging my little baby's brain.

4) Let's face it: it's hard to do with another adult around.
When dad comes home, or when we're with family, or when we have playdates, it's really hard to keep the conversation with kids going constantly. In social situations, the youngest children are often distracted while the adults talk

This is tricky. It's obviously important for me to maintain relationships with husbands and family and friends. But sometimes some self-reminders can help me to draw the child back in and occasionally keep eye contact or conversation. Also, conversation from other children absolutely counts as that same stimulating brain-builder.

It's also very important (and very helpful!) to make sure that the other caretakers of your children know the importance of talking to babies. It's a relief to me that my husband is also making the effort to ramp up conversation and engagement. It's enormously helpful when grandparents are contributing. My babysitters need to know this. You don't need to be the only one! Let your entire child-raising community help give your babies words and brain-power.

5) Sometimes your kids don't want to talk.
A few weeks ago I was making a pointed effort at conversation with my two year old. I turned off the music in the car, thinking "I need to be talking to her more." And the truth is, she didn't really want to talk. I kept starting conversations that ended. It took a while before I could find something to talk about that she was responsive to (answer: dinosaurs). If conversation isn't going well, try and steer toward new topics until you find something that fits.

6) Introvert/Extrovert tendencies
I am an introvert. My husband is an extrovert. Although we both have to focus and work on this effort daily, I think it comes a little more naturally to him. Regardless of where your tendencies are, you're probably going to have to push yourself more than feels natural.
It's still worth it.

7) It's hard to do when you're stressed.
I find that when I am worried about something, it's a lot harder to engage in chatty two year old or baby conversation. Worries can range from work deadlines to car repairs to relationships to to-do lists and they all make it difficult.

It's okay. You're not going to be perfect at this every day. On the days you only get in a few minutes, it's still beneficial to your baby.

8) It's hardest to do with your oldest child.
When I first learned and started reading about the impact conversation has on babies, I had one small baby. We had a pretty quiet house, just the two of us. It takes a huge amount of effort and diligence to keep conversation levels up high when there's no usual conversation around the house. It is extremely difficult. 

The good news: it gets easier EVERY day. As your baby develops, she is specifically learning from you how to talk back. As he grows, it gets easier and easier. Conversation gets easier. Engaging and back-and-forth interaction comes more naturally. And then they do start talking back. And then it gets really fun. 

9) Finding time every hour
Life is so busy. With added kids and busy schedules the time adds up. Remember--you don't have invent a magic extra fifteen minutes every hour! You can try to find times to simply add in more words, like while driving or doing tasks around the home. You can have older siblings or babysitters or grandparents help get in the words. 

10) But here's the other secret: I've found that occasionally stopping everything I'm doing to just sit and read or sing is a magic recharge time. When I pause, set a timer on my phone for a few minutes, and just dedicate time to engaging with my child, I can go back to my tasks a little more energized. Turns out that relationship builder and time spent together does something for me, too.

You're not in this alone.  It's hard, and I get it.
But you can do this, too.

© Jennie Brown 2015