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Building concepts

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Babies are so curious. Have you noticed your baby using her senses, her arms, her legs, her mouth, her movements to learn about her world? She makes a discovery and then explores some more. She learns to move a mobile by batting it with her arms. She figures out that little rattles fit right in her mouth, but big round balls are more fun to toss away. She learns that silly adults will pick up whatever she throws and give it back to her. These experiences teach your baby about things around her. She will start to wonder, “What’s this called?” and “how does this work?” In this section you will find suggestions for responding to your baby’s natural curiosity.

What is its name?

All that mouthing, looking, feeling and exploring in the first year helps babies learn what objects are all about. Around the first birthday, babies make an important discovery…”Even though my bottle is not here, I remember my bottle…and I want it now!” Once objects stay in memory like this, words become important tools. Everything has a name. The first question that babies ask, with words, gestures, or facial expression, seems to be: “What’s that?” They learn names for things fast. Parents help babies along by looking at what baby is looking at and using the name for it.

You want to be close to your baby and at eye level, so that both of you can attend to the object and listen to the word. If you are encouraging your baby to watch your face, then move your face close to the object before you speak. It is best to tune into your baby’s attention. Babies easily become fascinated with whatever they are exploring. They typically do not want to stop at look at something the adult wants to talk about. Watch what holds your baby’s interest and talk about those things and their actions. You’ve heard it many times before…follow the baby’s lead and give words to match baby’s interest.

Tips for families using spoken language:

There are lots of good times to talk about the names for things. Be sure your child’s hearing aid or cochlear implant is working. Get on your child’s level, if possible (e.g., join her on the floor; sit in his bouncinette close to you on the couch).

Notice what your baby reaches for. If she reaches for toes, talk about toes. If she chews on a hat, talk about that!

You can encourage your baby to listen to the word, and then look and listen in natural ways. Suppose you notice baby is hungry. You can say, “Listen, what’s in daddy’s bag?” (dad shakes the biscuits.) “Oh, I have biscuits! (then bring them into baby and dad’s line of vision). Biscuits, see? You want a biscuit? Yes, you are excited!”

Everything has a name. Remind family members to name things that interest baby. It is easy for us to fall into a habit of using ‘it’ (put it in). When baby is first learning words, use names instead (put the block in).

Tips for families who are signing:

If your baby depends on vision, then remember that you have to wait for the baby to look at the object first. Then, you can do some of the things that Deaf parents do to call attention to the names of the objects.

  • You can make the sign on the object itself. Your baby’s eyes are already there, or they soon will be if you are signing there.
  • You can produce the sign for the object your baby is looking at, as soon as the baby looks at you for information.
  • You can point to something interesting, and, if your baby pays attention, name the object.
  • You can move interesting objects into your baby’s field of vision to attract attention.
  • You can move so that your baby can see you easily.

If you are using sign language with your baby, then you will find that the trick is to keep up with all the names your baby wants to know. That seems like an overwhelming task at first, but it really isn’t. Babies will want to know the same thing many times. At the beginning of language development, they need to see or hear a word hundreds of times before they really know it. That gives you a chance to practice. Remember that you know your baby well. If you pay attention to the things that are interesting, and that are often in your baby’s field of vision, you will know the names to learn. If you know what your baby often does, and feels, and tastes, and hears, then those are the words to look up and practice right away. If you don’t quite remember, make a list!

Label, label, label, all day long. Name objects, but not just objects. Language is more than nouns. Name actions. Name feelings and reactions. Name simple concepts (e.g., how does it look, feel, taste, sound, move?). Name them all day long, in as many situations as you can find. Try a sample list, based on how well you know your baby and your daily routine. The first item is an example.

Teddy Bear
Baby wakes up and looks:
“There’s Teddy Bear.”
Baby grabs bear.
“Hug Teddy Bear.”
“You love Teddy Bear.”
Baby spills milk on the bear.
“Teddy Bear is wet.”(sniff the bear)
“Teddy Bear smells like milk”
Baby grabs own shoe.
“There’s your shoe!”
Baby struggles to get it off.
“You want the shoe off? Pull!”
Shoe comes off.
“You got your shoe off!!”
Peaches at lunch
Baby takes a bite. Possible responses:
a) Mmmm. Peaches are good.
b) You like peaches.
c) you eat peaches. Yummy.

Baby opens mouth for more. Possible responses:
a) more peaches.
b) oh, another bite of peaches.
c) here come the peaches. You want more.

Baby turns away. Possible responses:
a) no more peaches? you are full?
b) one more bite. Peaches are good.
c) done with peaches? okay.
What does it look, feel, smell and taste like?

Some objects are around babies all the time. They don’t get interesting until one becomes somehow different from all the others. Your baby sees stacks of nappies by the changing table every day. A STINKY nappy, or a WET nappy becomes more interesting than one of those in the stack. Of course, when you get a DRY, CLEAN nappy and put it on, then your baby likes to know the name for that comfortable feeling.

You can use words for how things look, feel, smell and taste over and over again. Concept words pop up throughout the day. Any interaction with your baby gives you a chance to point these ideas out. Let’s take a look at some daily routines that are ripe for talking about concept words. During our busy lives, it can be easy to hurry through some of these ordinary routines. Remember that by slowing down just a little, you can provide learning opportunities for your little one.

Waking up time: “Good morning, sweetie. Are you WET? (baby lifts arms) UP we go…let’s take a bath. OOOh that water feels WARM. (baby grins and splashes) You LOVE your bath. (parent wipes baby…) A WET face. WET feet. WET arms. (baby shivers) You are getting COLD now. Let’s get a WARM towel. DRY you off. “

Breakfast in the high chair: “Mmmmm cereal! Take a bite! (baby eats) It tastes WARM and YUMMY. (baby reaches toward spoon) Oh, you want MORE? MORE cereal. (baby puts hand in hair) Uh oh, some cereal in your hair. That’s STICKY.”

Playtime: (your toddler is exploring the plastic containers in the kitchen cupboards while parents are getting dinner ready). “What did you find?” That bowl is BIG. PULL the lid OFF (toddler struggles to get it off and fusses.) Oh that’s HARD. I will help. (toddler smiles and looks up as lid comes off). You got the lid OFF. What a BIG lid! (toddler tries it on her head). Oh, FUNNY…you made a BIG HAT! (toddler works to get the lid back on) Put it ON. PUSH.”

Bedtime: (baby yawns). “Are you SLEEPY?” It’s bed time. You want your BIG blanket? (baby takes it and feels it) It is so SOFT. You love your BIG blanket. Nightie night. Sleep tight.”

When you are making your list of words that interest your baby, be sure to include some concept words. Remember to use words for:

  • Size: Big/little, tall/short
  • Appearance: cute, pretty, broken
  • Texture: cold/hot, wet/dry, hard/soft, heavy/light
  • Taste: sour, sweet
  • Smell: stinky, m-m-m-good
  • Speed: fast/slow
  • Direction: up/down, in/out

Remember some of the ideas in the other sections. Don’t take all the turns. First pay attention to what interests your baby. Talk about what your baby notices and explores. Follow baby’s lead.

What do I hear?

You can help your baby understand that some things make sounds. Although hearing aids or cochlear implants can help make the most of your baby’s residual hearing, what is making the sound and why the sound is happening still need to be learned. If your baby reacts to a sound, your job is easy. You react too, look around, and talk about the sound source. “You heard the dog.” “Listen! Do you hear daddy? Daddy is calling you.”

The baby with a hearing loss sometimes ignores unknown or very soft sounds because they are not yet meaningful. Your job as tour guide is to give them meaning. Your job is to call your baby’s attention to sounds and give those sounds a name. You can say…”Listen! I hear something outside. What is it? (this builds excitement about the sound)” You both run to the window, and there is the neighbour, starting to mow the lawn. Then you add, “Oh it was the lawn mower. Hear that? It is noisy!” Once your baby does notice a particular sound, you may have to respond again and again: “You heard the lawn mower. Let’s look outside.” It is okay to repeat. Your baby isn’t bored. Maybe you play a game of hide and seek. Listen for daddy calling from behind the couch. Prompt your child, saying, “Listen. I hear daddy. Let’s find daddy.”

Your teacher of the deaf will guide you in techniques for encouraging your baby’s auditory learning. Some general guidelines apply, however:

  • A first goal is checking the hearing aids and working to get hearing aid use well established.
    Before your baby can make the best use of hearing aids, you need to be sure they are working. It is helpful to check the aids and put them on when the baby gets dressed in the morning. It becomes a natural part of the dressing routine. Your baby may enjoy hearing the sing-song of your voice (“I love you…You are SOOO big) as you turn on the device. Watch to see if your baby appears to listen or makes sounds as the device is turned on. Talk to your teacher of the deaf about differences you notice when baby has the device(s) turned on. Ask for assistance from other parents, your baby’s audiologist and your teacher of the deaf if your baby does not want to keep device(s) on.
  • Provide an environment for your baby that is conducive to listening.
    Our homes are noisy places. You will want to limit auditory distractions (e.g. TV on in the background, blender, noisy fans) when you are spending quality language time with your child. Get close to the baby and use an animated face and voice while playing together. A quiet background environment will help your baby hear this stimulation.
  • Create opportunities for listening throughout the day.
    You may already be good at pointing out sounds and naming them. What else can you do to encourage listening? Your own voice is a great tool! Suppose your baby is quiet and alert in the high chair. Call your baby’s name in a natural manner as you approach the high chair. Over time, your baby will learn to turn when his or her name is called. By repeating the game of calling his name as you approach, you give the baby a chance to learn this skill. Try it during peek-a-boo. Does your baby wait to hear you calling and then pull down the cover to find your face?Use your voice to present interesting sound patterns for your baby to hear. At first, your baby may respond best to sounds that are quite different from one another (e.g., beep beep beep for the toy car will sound different from aaaaaaaaaaah for the airplane). You can associate sounds with favourite toys and activities. As the child hears familiar patterns (e.g., up! Each time he is lifted; wheeeeeee! as daddy tosses baby; rock-rock in the rocking chair), the patterns will start to make sense.

    The baby with profound deafness may not hear most sounds, even with hearing aids. Remember that sounds are still in the environment, and that they have a purpose. You can make your baby aware of the sources of sound that you hear. You can say, “The phone is ringing. Wait a minute,” before you leave to answer it. This keeps your baby informed of what is happening.

    If your baby is being considered for a cochlear implant, it is valuable to provide auditory stimulation with hearing aids prior to the surgery. Be sure your baby wears the hearing aids in the months before the implant surgery. Imitate sounds your baby makes. Encourage your baby to listen to sounds you make.

How do I feel?

Children experience many different emotions during the day. You can help your baby express feelings by using concept words when your baby is experiencing the feeling. No matter how wonderful we are as parents, babies get angry, sad, and frustrated. Labelling feelings can give your baby a way to express them with fewer tantrums and tears. The examples below will give you some ideas of do’s and don’t’s in describing feelings.

Instead of:Try this:
Parent: “Don’t cry. It will be okay.”Baby pinches a finger in the high chair tray.
Parent: “Ow! That hurts. You are sad. Let Mommy kiss it.”
Baby is frustrated with a toy.
Parent: “Stop throwing. Here, “I’ll do it.”
Baby is frustrated with a toy.
Parent: “You are mad. That is hard. Can Dad help?”
Baby is excited to see Grandma.
Parent: “There is Grandma.”
Baby is excited to see Grandma.
Parent: “Look! Grandma! You are so excited.”

In the examples on the left, the parent misses an opportunity to label the baby’s feeling. When parents help their babies label their feelings, it shows that parents are really listening and understanding. In the examples on the right, the parents gave the feeling a word. They also talked about why the baby had this feeling. This supports concept development.

How can I find out what I want to know?

Babies are curious. Being curious helps them to learn. When babies are curious they ask questions. Your baby may not ask questions with words, but when you see your baby look around the room for the toy that rolled under the couch, you know the question is “Where?” When your baby picks up a new object and looks at you with a puzzled face, you know the question is “What’s this?” When the teddy bear’s button eye suddenly comes off and your baby shows it to you, you know the question is “What happened?”

You have learned how to respond to gestures and facial expressions, but how do you help your baby begin to use words to ask questions? Hearing children learn to ask questions by “overhearing” questions and answers. They figure out how questions work. Deaf children, are often left out of question-answer routines because hearing people forget to sign the questions they ask other hearing people. Your baby needs to have a chance to watch or listen to other people asking and answering questions.

What can you do? You can actively use questions with other people when your baby is present. You can be sure that both the questions and the answers are accessible and interesting.

A question model with family members might go like this:

Baby: Looks around the room searching for brother.

Mum: (Asks herself in speech) “Hmmmmm. Where is John?”
(Puts child’s thought into words).”Let’s ask Dad.”
(Models for baby) “Dad, where is John?
(Encourages baby to look at Dad).

Dad: (Answers at the baby’s eye level) “He is outside.”

Mum: (To baby). “Okay. Let’s go outside!”

Parents also ask their babies questions. Questions encourage babies to practice the new words and ideas they are learning. Questions are part of parent/baby conversations. Remember, however, that if you ask all the questions, your baby is only learning to answer. If you are paying attention to your baby’s communication, then often your baby’s turn will be a question and your turn will be an answer. When that happens, you are following your baby’s lead, and your baby is using questions for their main purpose: learning.

Stretch my ideas

Encouraging a baby’s language development is a lot like making toffee. Toffee becomes better formed when it is stretched and pulled. This is true of language, too. You can accept your baby’s idea, and then stretch the idea just a little. When you add a concept word, you are giving your baby a chance to see an idea used in a more advanced way. That encourages your baby to stretch up to the next step. The important point is to stretch just a little, so that your baby still recognises the original idea. You do this by adding just one idea or putting the child’s thought into a slightly longer phrase. It works like this:

Baby: “Ball!”
Parent: “Yes. A big ball!”

Babies usually mean more than they say. “Ball!” might mean “Big ball!” if the ball is bigger than usual. “Ball!” might also mean “Roll me the ball!” You can say, with your eyebrows up and your pitch rising, “Roll the ball?” Ball could mean, “The ball rolled under the couch and I can’t reach it.” You can say, as you move the couch or reach under to retrieve it, “You lost the ball. Here it is!” Your baby will usually let you know what “Ball!” means by adding gestures and facial expressions.

Sometimes it is your baby who uses the concept word. “Wet,” can be a nappy, clothes out of the washing machine, the floor after it is mopped, the high chair tray with spilled milk or hair after it is washed. That is your opportunity to stretch the toffee with all those labels you learned: “Wet nappy.” “Yes, wet clothes.” “Wet floor.” “Yuck! Wet tray.” “Wet hair.”

You are still responding to your baby’s lead, but stretching the baby’s idea adds to the concept.

Let me explore

All babies love to explore. They explore themselves, their homes and the outdoors. They explore the ways that things relate to each other. Giving your child the opportunity to explore may be messy, but “hands on” is the best way for your baby to learn. Exploring increases your baby’s knowledge about the world, and you can have conversations about that world.

How can your baby explore size? Do you have a floor level kitchen drawer that seems to draw your baby like a magnet? Instead of putting a baby lock on that one drawer, put a big coloured flower or frog or butterfly on the drawer that says, “This one is for you to explore.” Inside, you can put all sizes and kinds of plastic lids. There is the screw-off lid from a peanut butter jar (too big to be swallowed), the square lid of a sandwich container, the big round lid of a coffee can, a clear lid and coloured lids, huge lids and smaller lids, or any lid without small parts to be chewed off and choked on. While you are cooking, or paying bills, or working on the computer at the kitchen table, your baby can open the drawer, take out the lids, chew on them, hold them, bang them, wave them around, and gradually begin to stack them, sort them and pretend they are hats and plates.

How can your baby explore volume? Put a washtub in your bathroom, full of plastic cups (with and without handles), measuring cups, plastic bottles with narrow necks, sand toys or a plastic colander with holes, and other enticing containers for pouring. At bath time, put the containers in the tub for some “exploring.” Guess what? Things feel lighter when they are empty. When you pour water out of a little container into a big one, the big one doesn’t fill up. When you pour water from a big container into a little container, the little one overflows. Water doesn’t stay in a container that has holes! Think of the conversations you can have!

How can your baby explore the outdoors? Do you have an old blanket? Spread it on the grass on a nice day, and bring just a few things to the blanket at a time: a flower, a leaf, a rock too big to swallow. Or go for a walk with the stroller and walk up to the object your baby notices. Birds fly over, and grasshoppers jump, and if you are lucky, a lizard may run up a tree, but remember that trucks and cars are interesting, too; so are boats and bicycles in people’s driveways, and water sprinklers, and fire hydrants, and sirens and doors. If you live in the city, look outside and think about the things your baby might like to see, or places that you could go and explore safely.

Of course, some places are not safe to explore. Electrical outlets, cupboard doors under the sink and busy sidewalks need to be put off limits. Remember that your deaf baby may not be alerted by loud, startling sounds. But as you set up barriers for your baby’s safety, remember that inside those barriers you can look for or set up chances for exploring.

Remember that any daily experience can become a language experience. The coffee can lid is BIG and SMOOTH. The cup is FULL of water and then it is EMPTY. The flower smells SWEET and the siren is LOUD. While making juice, your child may discover that the water is COLD, the juice tastes SWEET and the drop of concentrate on the table is STICKY. You can take advantage of many simple daily routines for introducing concept words. The list is endless: grocery shopping, doing laundry, walking the dog, or even cleaning the refrigerator. Have fun exploring together!

More information from

Information supplied by:
Boys Town National Research Hospital and
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).
Reproduced with permission. logo




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