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Learning from my family

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Babies learn from their parents, families, and the place where they spend the most time. Babies with hearing loss are surrounded by caring individuals and opportunities to learn. Providing a rich learning environment for your baby can present a challenge; the experience you may have gotten from your own childhood or from bringing up other children suddenly seems inadequate. Actually, what your deaf baby learns in your family will be very similar to what hearing children learn. With a few adjustments, you can help your baby learn those important lessons that only a family can provide.

Accomplishing daily routines

Routines are activities we do everyday. We do them almost the same way every time. They have actions and language that only change a little. Routines are predictable, and that makes routines a wonderful time for you to include your baby in the family. Some of the first language your baby understands and uses will probably be part of a family routine.

What are some of the routines in your family? Every family is different. For a family on a farm, taking care of animals may be an early morning routine. If the baby rides in a backpack or sits in a bouncinette on the verandah, some of that routine becomes familiar. A city family may spend the same time getting ready to leave for a job, for school, or for day care. The language and actions are different, but the morning still has a routine.

Here are a few routines that many parents and their babies have:

  • Changing nappies
  • Eating
  • Dressing
  • Going for a ride
  • Going for a walk
  • Going to bed

Let’s look at an example from one family, and then you can think about your routine for the same activity.

Baby: (cries a “hunger cry”)
Parent: (picks up the baby and prepares to feed) “You are hungry.”
Baby: (stops crying or smiles at sight of food)
Parent: (begins to feed baby) “Now you feel better. That tastes good.”

What is the routine at your house when it is time to eat?

As your baby gets a little older, of course the routine gets more complex. Solid food will encourage more language. Your baby may begin to ask for more, or gesture in rejection. You may play games: “Here comes the airplane” or “Just one more. Open.” The food may spill, or spatter. “Uh, oh. Messy!”

Think of some other routines. Watch your baby and listen to yourself as you carry them out. What is the most natural language to go with each action? How do you give your baby access to that language? Do you make sure that the hearing aids or cochlear implants are on and working and that the television is turned off until the routine is over, or that brothers and sisters take their conversation into another room, or better yet – join you in the routine? Practice writing down routines that your family enjoys.

RoutineNatural languageProviding access
Going for a walk (ride in the stroller)Go outside.
Let’s walk.
Ride in the stroller
Put on your (helmet, jacket, shoes).
Look at the (bird, cars, flower, etc).
Use your chosen communication mode.
Show your baby the stroller, helmet or other object.
Point at the object you are talking about.

All of the skills discussed in Building Conversations, and Building Concepts on this website will be useful here. The principles of language development stay the same in every situation.

Making the most of family experiences

Major experiences may be familiar, like going to the beach, or new for everyone in the family, like a family holiday. Maybe you have relatives who only visit occasionally. Sometimes the family needs to move.

When your experience is familiar to you, but new to your baby or young child, you can watch carefully to see what draws your baby’s attention. For example, every family has its own way of celebrating the holidays appropriate for its culture. You may decorate your house, wear special clothes, prepare special foods, sing special songs, or go special places. What does your baby or young child pay the most attention to? Are there bright colours and new faces to attract your baby’s attention? Are there songs and sounds to catch your baby’s ear? Are some of the traditional characters a little frightening?

Even though we know all about these things as adults, your baby is probably not ready to learn everything. All children learn more about family traditions each time they are experienced. This year, your baby looks and listens. Next year, your baby will be a toddler, and interested in things to touch and taste. As your baby grows up, the routines of the holiday, the details, the language, will become important. Follow your baby’s lead for now, name the interesting things to look at, and the interesting sounds. Listen and look together. Include your baby in the celebration to lay a foundation for next year.

When relatives and good friends visit, you have the chance to introduce your baby to new people who will be important later on. You also have the chance to help these extended family members to become comfortable with your baby as a whole person, who happens to be deaf. You can answer their questions and explain your communication, so that when they interact with the baby, both parties are comfortable.

Sometimes a major experience is a change for everyone. Moving, or going on a holiday to a new place, can be stressful as well as fun. Babies know when the adults around them are feeling hurried, stressed, or upset. [When your voice is not accessible to soothe and reassure your deaf baby, you need to relax your body, and use your face to show excitement, anticipation, and calm. Because your hearing impaired baby may only have partial access to the subtle messages in your voice, you want to use your face and body as well.] Then both of you will be able to see and appreciate all the new sights. What catches your baby’s attention? What can you communicate about?

Remember that minor experiences, like going to the supermarket, church or library, or having a baby-sitter, while they may happen fairly often, are still a change in routine. Changes are wonderful opportunities to engage in conversation, because your baby will find some way, with or without spoken or signed words, to let you know what is new and interesting. Don’t forget to respond.

Participating in family communication

How many chances does your baby have to take a conversational turn in your family communications? It is time to go to the shops. You ask your teenager, “Do you want to go with us?” You tell your six-year old, “We need to go to the shops. Let’s get your new school shoes.” You can also say or sign to your baby, “Go to the shops!” with an excited face, and get an excited face in reply. Maybe the shops aren’t meaningful right now, but after several trips, it will be. You may even get “shop” with a smile in response.

Every family has conversations. Some are predictable, such as dinner conversations about what happened during the day. Some happen unexpectedly, for example, when someone is sick and people in the family are worried. In almost every conversation, there is a place for your baby to see other people communicating with each other. The more conversations that take place using the modality you have chosen to use at home, the more communication your baby can use to learn about the world. Parents, brothers, sisters, and other family members need to talk or sign to each other clearly in the baby’s presence, not just when they are communicating with the baby.

Communicate with each other:

  • Before you go somewhere
  • After you get back
  • At the table
  • At bedtime
  • When you are all happy, excited, or sad

Everything you say is important, and every time you use your new communication skills, you will become more comfortable with them. As your baby grows, your communication skills will be ready.

Learning polite conventions

We make friends and become part of the community by being polite. Almost the first social communication a baby learns is a greeting. When you go to the cot to get your baby up in the morning, you often get a big smile. You probably respond with a smile and “Good morning!” You use your baby’s name. You pick your baby up. Babies learn from our example. At the beginning, if we use similar greetings every day, they become part of a greeting routine. Soon, we are waiting for a voice, or a wave, or a formal word or sign, encouraging the baby to respond with more than the smile. Don’t rush that moment, but leave the opportunity for it in your routine. Later, you greet other people when they arrive. Your baby sees that you exchange that routine with others, too. Gradually, as your baby becomes a little older, you can encourage greeting exchanges with others. Greetings are important as a social tool. We start our communications with “Hi, how are you?” We use people’s names when we greet them. Our babies who are deaf need to be aware that they should greet others, too.

Two other early kinds of polite conversation are appreciation and apology. The process of learning “Thank you” and “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry,” is very much like learning to greet people. Your baby sees or hears you, learns from the interactions between the two of you, and learns from seeing you communicate with other people. You want to be sure that your baby can connect what you are saying with what is happening at the time, so that the reasons for using social language are clear.

Even before your baby is ready to say “Hi,” or “Thank you,” he will be able to wave “Bye-bye.” Saying goodbye is one of the first social routines that babies learn. Like any parents, you will find yourselves saying, “Say bye-bye to Grandma (or Aunt Nancy, or your teacher).” The gesture that we use to say goodbye is one that any baby can see and copy.

Social language has a lot to do with how people respond to us in the community. Keep your baby aware of your social language and use social routines. Make sure that you use your chosen communication mode (such as sign or speech) so that your baby understands as much as possible about what is happening.

Experiencing listening and music

When you found out that your baby had a hearing loss, did you wonder about music, nursery rhymes, lullabies, and all the singing games that are part of early childhood? Some parents say that they find themselves using less music and singing in their homes than they did before their baby was diagnosed.

In fact, many adults who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing love music. Musical sounds are different than speech. We don’t have to understand them or hear all of them in order to enjoy them. Early chances to listen and participate in family music can help build your baby’s ability to hear if she uses amplification. You can move to music from the stereo, especially if it has a strong bass line and an interesting rhythm. Some music is slow; some music is fast. Some music is loud, and some is quiet. Music uses high and low sounds and the differences are interesting.

You can make traditional nursery rhymes and word plays accessible by making the room quiet, by checking hearing aids to be sure they are working, and by getting close to your baby. Parents and babies have played with spoken language as part of learning for thousands of years. There are ways to play with Auslan as well. Sometimes the word games are different because they are visual, but they are just as much fun. If there are Deaf adults where you live, find out what they do with their children. Deaf toddlers love to watch sing-along videos of their favourite characters again and again, moving with the actions on the screen and gradually adding language, especially if you participate.

The important part of a lullaby, especially to young babies, is not the words, but the sound. Close to a mother or father’s chest and mouth, a baby with hearing loss can receive vibration and sound combined with a feeling of comfort and protection. At the same time, the baby is learning to listen to those sounds that she can hear.

Babies don’t have to hear music in the same way that we do. They can enjoy it, dance to it, relax to it, and produce it in their own way. So get out the pan lids and wooden spoons. Turn up the stereo for dancing, and sing lullabies and nursery rhymes. Have fun with music and early listening.

Developing creativity and art

When babies are very small, they like to look at edges, stripes, and patterns. Some research suggests that babies who depend on their eyes for information develop a little bit of extra attention to and interest in things that they see. Having some interesting things to look at is important. Colourful books, bright mobiles, figures on the bedroom walls, and pretty stuffed pillows and animals can all encourage your baby to use his eyes from the very beginning. Babies can attend best if they can see a few bright items at one time. You might have an activity gym in the playpen, a bright stuffed animal in the cot, and a colourful mobile over the changing table. Babies like to look at new objects; you can introduce a new toy or animal or book and take away the old one occasionally.

As babies begin to use language, they also begin to enjoy creating: making marks on paper, for example, or squeezing colourful play-dough. Art activities are chances for your baby to express feelings and to experience making early marks and shapes. Art is also another way for you and your baby to have conversations. He may not be drawing or making anything you can recognise, but it won’t be long before he wants to tell you what he made.

If you are working in a room, you can cover a high chair tray or play table with butcher paper, put your baby in it, and hand over a crayon. If the crayon goes in the mouth, it is non-toxic. But you are there and can draw and scribble with your baby for a while. Play dough usually has to be a shared project and you may need an old shower curtain on the floor, but it is a lot of fun!

Outside, you have sidewalk chalk, or sand to play in, or leaves and flowers to look at. Babies are interested in looking, touching and doing in creative ways, and your deaf baby will find many opportunities for engaging you in those early conversations that turn into language in your chosen communication mode.

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Acquiring family values

When babies are small, their knowledge of family values comes from the way parents treat them and other family members. If your family values include sharing, communicating, and respect, then those values will be in your baby’s environment. If family members use the language for those values in ways that your baby can see or hear, then that language will be in the environment as well. Any spiritual values your family has also will be accessible to your baby.

Most formal teaching about values comes later in your baby’s life, but now is a good time to think about it. If you have chosen signed communication for your family, are you learning the signs for sharing, negotiating and showing respect? Can you explain why you behave and believe the way you do in a way that a child can understand? Whatever your communication mode, have you thought about how you would communicate about values to a child with normal hearing, and how to communicate the same information to your baby with hearing loss? You would be surprised at how early children begin to notice family values and benefit from simple language about them.

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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