How to Help Babies Develop Language Skills for Nannies and Au Pairs

The November 2009 Be the Best Nanny Newsletter discusses speech and language development in children. For example, yesterday we discussed baby sign language with infants and toddlers.

Since we will not be publishing articles from the newsletter on our blog the following article is meant as a supplement to the articles already found in the November issue of the nanny trade publication.

To see the articles on language development simply subscribe to Be the Best Nanny Newsletter online.

As Betty Hart and Todd R.Risley point out in Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, talking to babies and young children makes a huge difference in how well those children develop language skills. How well children talk affects how well they read, and reading ability has a strong correlation to school performance. The conclusion of Hart and Risley? That parents have to talk more to children. The more positive the language, the better. But what about parents who were seldom talked to themselves? Parents who may be isolated from other adults and have little verbal interaction? Here’s a few of the ways parent educator Helen Neville, the author of a forthcoming book on infant and toddler development, recommends that all parents encourage language development.

Use baby talk. The exaggerated tones of “parent-ese” help babies learn sounds:”LOOOK at the BAAAL.” Use real words, pronounced correctly, and short, simple sentences. Repeat common words: “Here is your sock. Let’s put this sock on this foot. And this sock goes on the other foot.”

Look at youngsters when you talk to them. Babies learn more easily when they see how our mouths move to make different sounds. After we speak, we need to pause so they have time to “answer” with a look or a wiggle. Communication begins long before babies say their first words.

Talk about what’s going on. Tell children what we are going to do and what we are doing and what they are doing: “I’m going to change your diaper. Here we go—over to the diaper table. You’re wiggling your legs.”

Explain why. “Walk slowly so the kitty doesn’t get scared.” “Put the cup here so it won’t spill.”
Respond to children’s efforts. Smile and repeat back their sounds and babble so they know we notice. Then try a different sound and see if your child can copy it.

Use gestures and signals. Babies use gestures before they can talk. The sooner they can communicate, the more content they will be. Copy any signals the babies use and make up new ones: move your mouth as though sucking whenever you offer milk and bring your hand to your lips whenever you say “eat.” Babies and toddlers also love songs with hand actions (“The Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round”).

Use sound effects. Say “Woof” for the dog and make an engine sound for the family car. Some sound effects are easier than words for babies to copy.

Repeat useful words. Over and over, use the words for such common actions as eat, more, sleep, all gone; the names of important people and words that describe (Do you want the big one or the little one?).

Make conversation. When a toddler says, “Kitty!” Mom can answer, “Yes, the kitty is under the table” and then ask, “Can you see the kitty’s ears?” When the toddler nods and says, “Kitty sit,” Mom can answer, “Yes, the kitty is sitting with his tail over his feet. Do you have a tail like the kitty does?”

Answer children’s questions. If questions are repeated, try to guess what else children may want to know or want to tell us. “Where’s Daddy?” “At work.” “Where’s Daddy?” “At work.” “Where’s Daddy? ” “Do you miss Daddy?” “Yes!”

First published in PEP Talk. Copyright Parenting Press 2004. Reprinted here courtesy of Parenting Press.


  1. When I answered the monthly poll I said not to talk baby talk to kids and now I see in the newsletter and here that baby talk is good. Baby talk is good for babies but I meant for older children. Don't baby talk to school aged kids. When they pronounce something wrong do not think it is cute. Say the word properly is what I meant.

  2. To anonymous above, Baby talk refers to babies I think. You are correct that once a child is in Kindergarten they should not be speaking baby talk. It is embarrassing and not cute.Newborn SpeciatlistTara Kennedy Newport RI

  3. My question is that this month it says the advantages of billingual nannies and learning a 2nd language for kids. But also all these sources say how important it is to talk to kids a certain way. What if the nanny only speaks her native language and neglects to talk to the kids in the parents dominate language? Wouldn't that be confusing? The article proof was good. I understand easier to learn 2nd language when young. But wouldn't a billingual mess up the language development of little kids dominant language?I am confused about that. See article above today on blog seems to say there is a certain way to talk to babies. Wouldn't 2 language confuse the development?

  4. Younger children learn second languages much better than older children. When they are young they learn so easily. To learn a second language kids need consistency, quality and QUANTITY of the second language. Who better than a full time nanny? A billingual nanny is the perfect teacher of a second language for children.

  5. For anonymous responder that billingual confuses children is just crazy. Infants soak up language. They learn language so fast. It is a great thing to take advantage of a billingual nanny!!

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