You are here:  Home » Resources » Language and communication » Language and learning » Building conversations
Explore This Section...

Building conversations

Communication starts the moment your baby is born. As you cuddle your little one, you let the baby know, "I love you. I will keep you safe and warm." The process of learning language starts within healthy relationships in early infancy. Babies and parents make special connections through their own unique ways of communicating.

Experts say that how you connect with your baby

  • Helps the baby feel secure
  • Helps the baby learn

As you cuddle and play with your deaf baby, you will find special ways to connect. You will discover lots of tools for starting conversations…. using words, sounds, touches, facial expressions, hugs, silly games - just like with any baby. Have fun with your baby and you will figure it out.
Newborn yawning

Getting started

In the early weeks and months of your baby's life, you and your baby will make many discoveries about how to connect. Your animated face and voice will bring consistent smiles from her. Your baby will kick and move her arms to show she is excited to see you. She will look into your eyes, listen to your voice and watch intently as your facial expressions change. These enjoyable social interactions are the first step in your communication journey together.

During the first eight months of life, babies are learning how to pay attention to those around them and how to engage in social routines with others. This early social-emotional development is a main building block for communication. Interactions we think of as "baby games" are essential for getting communication started. When babies engage with others, they regularly respond with warmth, smiles and an expectation that "this is going to be fun." This happens as early as three to four months of age and makes parenting a rewarding adventure.

Communication is a lot like a friendly game of volleyball or tennis. The ball goes back and forth between partners. They get into a nice rhythm. They try not to hog the ball. They enjoy each other's company. Getting ready to communicate with your baby is just like this…enjoying each other, getting into a rhythm and taking social turns. Keep in mind that each baby is unique…what delights one will quiet another. Trust your instincts as you work to find a rhythm that is comfortable for you and your baby. The pleasure you two share will give your baby a sense of security and motivate her to learn.

You might be thinking…."what is so special about all of this? Isn't this what mums and dads do with any baby?" You are right. Communication with your deaf baby will start in much the same way as it does with any baby. The message you want to communicate with your face, voice and body is, "we love you…let's have some fun together."

You can follow some simple guidelines as you get started with your little one:

  • Watch closely. What is your baby's mood? Try to get into a rhythm that matches your baby's mood. If the baby fusses, you can respond with a sympathetic face and soothing voices. If she smiles, use an animated face and voice in response.
  • Encourage the baby to look at your face and listen to you. The baby will be interested in looking at you if you use various facial expressions and play social games that build anticipation. Vary your vocal inflections (like we normally do in baby talk) to encourage the baby to begin to listen to your voice.
  • Enjoy your baby. Parents tell us that it can be hard to focus on typical baby routines when they are worrying about the hearing loss. It can really help to talk with other parents and discover the enjoyment they have found as they gain more perspective on the hearing loss. Other parents can reassure you that "it's going to be all right." Focussing on this message, you can relax a bit and enjoy your little one.
Respond to your baby's communication

How do babies communicate? All babies start to communicate well before they know any words. A baby's smile says, "I'm happy" or "Do that game again!" A baby cries to let us know, "I'm hungry" or "I need a nappy change." Babies coo to say, "I feel good." From the first month on, babies listen and pay attention to important voices around them. They discover their voices and play with sounds in squeals, grunts, coos and gurgles. Around six to ten months of age, babies discover that they can join sounds together to babble strings like "dadada" or "gagaga." When babies are about nine months of age, they start to point or reach. These gestures may mean, "I want that!" or "Look at me!"
Mum talking to baby
Family members can help get the communication game started by following two simple guidelines. You will probably notice that you are already doing this naturally. If you are, just keep it up! Follow the two R's of early communication:

  • Recognise your baby's signals. Ask yourselves: "What is my baby trying to say with his or her eyes, face, body or voice?"
  • Respond to these signals as communication. Remind yourselves, "Talk about my baby's idea."

Recognising Signals
You will notice over time that your baby will use a variety of ways to express herself. Several possibilities are listed below. Take time to observe your own baby. How is your baby communicating without words? What do you think the baby means? Is she asking for attention or help? Does she want you to look at what she is looking at? Does she want more of something or want you to stop? Is she trying to share something fun with you? Have you noticed that even her cries have different meanings?

  • Gestures
  • Vocal sounds
  • Body movements (kicking, getting excited)
  • Eye gaze
  • Reaching
  • Cries
  • Vocal protests or whines
  • Smiling
  • Anticipating (e.g., hears pat-a-cake and waits for game to start)
  • Watching
  • Touching
  • Facial expressions
  • Getting mad
  • Making happy sound

Responding to signals

These are some common signals to watch for and recognise. Remember to look for anything: a facial expression, eye contact, or a movement that might have meaning for you. Now step two is to respond - when you give a response to your baby's signals, you encourage the baby to communicate more. You let the baby know, "I heard you!" Every time you respond to a signal, your baby realises that her gesture, or vocalisation, or facial expression made you understand. Your baby will try to communicate that way again.
Baby smiling

Every time you respond, you are demonstrating that conversations have two sides, and that both partners get a turn. Babies love to communicate. Because they do not always hear us, babies who are deaf may need us to respond very clearly.

If your baby is just getting used to hearing aids, you want to stay close, use a pleasant but clear voice, and talk about the baby's idea. If your family will be using a form of sign language, you want to stay in the baby's line of vision, look at what the baby looks at, match the baby's facial expression, and use simple signs and gestures.

The most important point at the beginning is to be sure that your baby knows that you responded. This will help your baby begin to predict that you will respond. That makes conversations exciting for both of you. The words will come in time.

Follow your child's lead

You want to respond to your baby's communication, but you aren't sure what kind of response to make. The best response follows your child's lead.

Babies and adults are sometimes interested in different things. A mother wants to give her baby a juice cup and talk about drinking, but the baby may at first be fascinated by the condensation running down the outside of the cup. "Wet. Your cup is wet," or "The drop is going down, down, down," is closer to the baby's thought than "Drink your juice," or "This is a cup."

Babies are curious. They are constantly exploring their world. When we try to get their attention to talk about our own ideas, we are taking them away from their interests. They may even be confused if they are thinking about one idea, and getting communication about a different one!

Babies like to communicate about their interests. We don't want to do all of the communicating - that would be like "hogging the ball." Instead, when we see what a baby is attending to, and communicate about that, we teach the baby to start a conversation with us, and learn more about that very interesting drop of water.

One way to be sure that you and your baby are on the same wavelength is to establish joint attention. If your baby points to something, you point, too, before you try to add to the communication. If your baby looks at something and laughs, you look and laugh. If your baby vocalises at a teddy bear, you do it, too. Then you can add a language turn. You let your actions say, "Your idea was interesting to both of us."

Talk about what interests your baby

How does your baby let you know what is interesting? Usually, babies look at, touch, grasp, listen to and chew on objects they like. They try to reach interesting objects, or light beams, or other babies. They laugh at unexpected actions and faces. They pay attention to what is interesting and new.

We know all about those things, but for babies, they are new and exciting. When you talk or sign about your baby's experiences while they are happening, then your baby will pay attention to you, too.

Provide information about the subject. "Aeroplane. Up-up-up." Provide too much information. "That's an aeroplane. It can fly high in the sky and up in the clouds."
Leave a space for another turn. "Big aeroplane." Then wait expectantly for your baby to take a turn. Decide what the baby's turn will be. "Can you say, `up'? Let's say, 'up.'"
Support the child's topic.(baby reaches for a rattle) "Want your rattle?" (baby giggles in response to a game) - This signals mum or dad to play more. Change the subject. (baby reaches for the rattle) "Look…Here's a truck."
Encourage turns.(baby laughs at being jumped) "Jump again?" Take too many turns. "You like to jump. Want to jump again? Say jump. Say it again. Want to jump?"
Comment on Objects, Actions and Problems

You are the one who has the words for your baby's interests and curiosity. Now that you have become an expert conversationalist and a mind reader, it is time to become a tour guide.

You do get to take conversational turns, too. Your turns are responsive, but they add information. You know where the important, exciting objects, actions and problems are, and you know how to communicate about them. When you play with your baby, you can point out these features. This is called parallel talk.

Remember, though, not to hog the turns or forget what your baby is attending to. If you play with your baby, you do it in steps. Different steps call for different parallel talk. For example, when you blow bubbles, you:

Blowing bubbles Find the stick in the bubble bottle. Where is it?" "Euw! Sticky!" "There it is."
Get ready to blow! "Ready?" "Blow!"
See bubbles everywhere, floating and popping. "Up, up." "Pop, pop, pop!" "All gone."
Feel wet circles everywhere. "Wet table. Feels wet."

Some of the other activities you guide your baby through could be changing nappies, dressing, eating or getting ready to go in the car. Each of these activities happens in steps, and every one of those steps can become a conversation. What does your baby attend to during changing? It could be the stinky nappy, but it could be the mobile of birds that you hung over the changing table or cot. When you have your coats on and open the door, does your baby notice the cold air, or the keys you are ready to use?

Affirm to support turns and stretch

Part of communication is showing that your partner's ideas are important to you. You may want to continue a conversation by encouraging your baby to take another turn. You may not get the message the first time. You may not immediately think of a way to respond. You may want to add something to your response to let your baby know you are interested and approving.

Tiny babies make lots of funny sounds. It is not always clear how to answer. As a parent, you have many ways of showing your baby approval and support.

  • You can keep your eyes on your baby while the two of you communicate.
  • You can smile and nod.
  • You can let your face show the same feeling that your baby is showing.
  • You can add small words, such as "yes," or "okay" to your response.
  • You can wait expectantly for more communication.

Babies and toddlers are not always easy to understand. When they begin to say words (often around 12 months of age), their early attempts can change a lot. Toddlers use jargon - a mix of jibberish and a word attempt or two. Although babies are unclear at times, you can affirm and keep the conversation going.

Keep it short and simple

Having a conversation with a baby is different than having a conversation with an adult or an older child. When we talk with any young child, we make our face and our voice expressive, we try to say interesting things, and we use short, simple phrases and sentences. We repeat a lot, because we know that young children are not just trying to understand what we tell them, they are also trying to learn about the language we are using. Babies with a hearing loss are trying to accomplish those same jobs. Because they have to be paying close attention to get a message, they need many, many opportunities. Because the job of acquiring language is complicated, our messages need to be short and simple.

You have practiced responding to signals, commenting on your child's interests, following your baby's lead, and guiding conversations into new and exciting worlds. Every time you use one of these skills, you will also need to practice keeping your conversational turn short and simple.

Adults talk to babies differently than anyone else. They use short, animated phrases and a lot of repetition. These changes serve an important purpose.

Here are some examples of parent conversation turns that are just right, or just a little bit too much:

Short and simple: Maybe too much for right now:
Big bite! You ate a big bite and your mouth is full!
Time to go night-night. Brush your teeth and then go to bed.
That's my sock. This is mummy's sock and this is your sock.
Mmmmm, good cereal. That cereal tastes really yummy.

Here are some phrases parents might use with their babies. All of them are about ideas that might interest a baby or respond to a signal. Some of them are a little too long. Which ones do you think are short and simple?

Your baby holds up an empty cup.
A. "Do you want more milk or are you done?"


B. (look in cup) "All gone." (hold up milk) "Want more milk?"
The two phrases in B are each short and supported by an action. Your baby has a chance to catch the meaning and the language.

Your baby pushes a toy away.
A. "No more toy? OK."


B. "You don't want this toy anymore. Let's find something else for you to look at."

The phrases in B express good ideas, but they are rather long for a young child with hearing loss. Shorter phrases, like in A, affirm the baby's idea and invite the baby to play something new.
Visual motherese (for signing families)

Your family has made a decision to use sign language with your baby. When educators explain how hearing parents talk with their babies, you need to know how to use signing in the same way.

Researchers have found that adults automatically change their speech in similar ways when they talk to children. They do not talk to children in the same way they talk to other adults. This adult-to-child talk includes the use of short, simple phrases and changes in the pitch of their voice (called motherese). These changes make it easier for the child to learn language.

Deaf children may barely hear the pitch changes that parents put in their voices, but you can put the same important changes into your signs, your faces, and your bodies. When people ask questions, for example, the pitch of the voice goes up at the end of a yes-no question, and down at the end of a question starting with words like Where, When, Who, What, How or Why (a WH question). When we sign, our eyebrows and bodies replace pitch. The eyebrows go up for a yes-no question; they furrow, or go down for the WH question, as our bodies lean slightly forward. This part of signing is called facial grammar.

Hearing babies know when their parents are happy, worried, angry, or excited from their voices, even when the baby cannot see the parent's face. Your deaf baby needs to see your facial expression and your body movements to get the same information. Are you smiling, and letting your signs flow? Are you frowning and signing sharp, emphatic signs as you run to cover the electric outlet? Are you pretending to cry as you see a sad character in a story?

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



Disclaimer: The information contained on this website is not intended as a substitute for independent professional advice.

02-Aug-2022 3:53 PM (AEST)