Speech therapist Nicola Lathey and journalist Tracey Blake are the authors of Small Talk, the new must-read for all parents wanting to improve their child’s language and communication development.
How did the book come about? A bit of background please…
Tracey: “Nicky and I have known each other 15 years. Our husbands used to go to school together so we’ve been friends forever.
When my little girl Minnie was about ten weeks old Nicola said to me ‘Minnie’s terribly chatty isn’t she? We’ve just had a wonderful conversation.’ I thought she was a bit bonkers – obviously ten week old babies can’t speak. But then she showed me how she was keeping eye contact with her and waiting for her to make a noise. Nicola would then respond, babbling away and wait for Minnie’s response.
It’s called The Art of Turntaking and it’s an early form of conversation. I was intrigued to learn more so I went along to Waterstones to find a book on early communication. I was really surprised that there wasn’t one and suggested to Nicky we write one. Our worlds as speech therapist and journalist came together!”
It’s estimated that about 33% of children don’t have sufficient language and communication skills for school. Did this influence your decision to write the book?
Tracey: “Absolutely. It’s an astonishing statistic. And there’s probably a number of reasons behind it not least the rise of technology; the downfall of things like family meals; parents being busier than ever and perhaps not spending so much time with their kids…”.
Nicola: “At a government level they’re on to the problem and they’re aware that it’s growing. The NHS waiting list for speech therapists is now 4.5 months. We really think this book has come at the right time.”
When should mums start talking to their baby bumps?
Nicola: “In the book there’s a section on talking to your bump which includes the turntaking technique. You wait for your baby’s kick then push the spot where baby kicks back. Scientists have found that the sound of a mother’s voice is soothing for babies from 27 weeks.”
And when can babies start interacting with mum?
Nicola: “At around four weeks babies can start ‘chatting’ and that’s the perfect time to talk to your baby in a singsongy voice – it’s called Motherese – where that lovely intonation really hooks your child. Their first sounds are cries which over time develop into vowel sounds, so around 6-10 weeks ‘aaagh’ becomes ‘ah’. Then baby gets more experimental with babbling, squeals and raspberry noises then on to actual consonant sounds that they hook up with vowels which in turn leads to ‘bab bab bab dad dad dad’.
Any key techniques for getting little ones chatting?
Nicola: “The main strategy in the book is called Say What You See – a technique that most mothers use instinctively. The idea is that language develops through play – just watch what your child is playing with then put their thoughts into words. So for example you give your child bricks to build with but actually your child is enjoying banging the bricks together. By saying ‘bang bang bang’ your voice becomes like a scratched record in their head so they’ll want to repeat that word.
Parents tend to ask children: ‘What’s that? Where’s it going?’ but much better is that we present them with the answers rather than the questions. That way we’re expanding their vocabulary and grammar by modeling language for them rather than questioning them on things that they haven’t learnt yet.
The See What You Say strategy works really well with as your child gets older too. Another key strategy is Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. If it works, do it again!
Here are some examples of practical games or exercises for different ages:
SMALL TALK TECHNIQUES FOR UP TO SIX MONTHS
Peekaboo is a lovely game. Dangle a muslin cloth over baby’s face saying ‘peeekaaaaa’ then when you see an excited little wiggle or response, pull off the cloth add say ‘boo!’ It’s great for interaction and really good fun.
SMALL TALK TECHNIQUES FOR UP TO 12 MONTHS
Ready steady go is an anticipation game that works well with a range of different activities. Say ‘ready, steady…’ then wait for your child’s vocalisation before rolling a ball, knocking down a tower or any other activity. It won’t be a lovely clear ‘go’ from the start – it’ll develop as you reward their vocalisation. Within three or four goes Tracey’s son Monty started saying ‘do’. Here’s another one. Your child sits on the sofa with daddy, mummy goes out of the room, then daddy and child call mummy back in by saying ‘mamamamama’. In comes mummy, does a little jig, then leaves. And again ‘mamamamama’ and in comes mummy again. You may wish you hadn’t started it! But it’s a great way of rewarding vocalisation with fun.
SMALL TALK TECHNIQUES FOR 12-24 MONTHS
Go around your house and take photos of things that are really important to child. Make your own Powerpoint display or slideshow on your laptop and talk about objects or family members. Monty was obsessed with cat, dada, mummy and bottle of milk. Once they have about 50 nouns they then start adding verbs and positioning words like ‘daddy running’ and ‘Monty on the cat’.
Play a simple game of “that’s not my…” and see if your child can fill in the word. Aim for ten minutes of quality small talk time together with no distractions, no phones or laptops.
What if my child doesn’t want to talk?
Nicola: “Take all the pressure off. That’s where parents go wrong. They start asking more questions: ‘what’s this, where’s that, how many’. It’s where the Say What You See strategy works so brilliantly. It gives children confidence and encourages them to speak more.
If there is an actual problem it’s good get their hearing tested. Glue ear is really very common in early childhood so it’s important to get it ruled out if your child isn’t responding as you’d like. Beyond that I’d suggest referral to a speech therapist.”
Any plans to write a follow up book?
“We’d love to! If this ones a bestseller who knows?!”
Simple ways to boost your child’s speech, language and communication development from birth By Nicola Lathey and Tracey Blake GBP £12.99 Available on Amazon.