Babies aren’t born knowing how to talk. They learn, from us. Although a first word is a major milestone, there are so many communication skills they need to master before that first word is ever heard. Watching others is how most babies learn to do…well, most anything! They watch us point, they want to point. They watch us clap, they try to clap. They watch us stick out our tongue, they want to do the same. If they are listening and watching then when we say “bababa” they might give it a try. Watching leads to imitation and imitation leads to learning. So what do we do when our little ones aren’t naturally watching us?

If you have a little one in speech therapy already, you may have heard that you should hold objects near your mouth when you name them so that your little one can watch your mouth move while looking at the object at the same time. It’s a good strategy. I recommend it all the time. But why?

If you’ve ever felt that your child isn’t listening to you and doesn’t seem to imitate your sounds very often, it may be time to focus on visual attention. What is that? It just means encouraging your little one to watch you: watch your mouth, watch your facial expressions, watch your actions. They can’t imitate well if they aren’t watching. Start there. Imitation is key. Didn’t I say that already? Oh, yes, repetition is important too!

Additionally, watching an adult’s mouth move is important for learning how to say specific sounds more accurately and realizing that my mouth needs to open, or my lips need to close, or my tongue needs to go up – whatever the case may be. Either way… if you have a little one learning to talk or a preschooler trying to say sounds more accurately… encouraging them to watch your mouth can be hugely beneficial!

Maybe it works for you if you just say “look at me”. Great! Go with that! However, most toddlers don’t really like to be told what to do so we need to get creative…

Draw attention to your face

  • Hold objects near your mouth when you name it. When your toddler wants milk (or anything), pause before you give it to them and just say the word clearly while you hold it near your mouth. “Milk.” You don’t need to ask them to do it. Just say the word. Watch that their eyes shift from the milk to your mouth and back again.
  • Blow bubbles and PAUSE while you hold the wand near your mouth to say “bubble” or “go”. If they are awaiting the bubble to appear from the wand, they are also staring straight at your mouth!
  • Make funny faces or sounds in a mirror. Bonus points for using painter’s tape to create a frame on large bathroom mirrors. Mirror play can also be a little less intimidating for those who are hesitant to make eye contact in close proximity.
  • Make a cardboard frame and hold it up around your face.
  • Cut out a hole in a cardboard box and wear it like a helmet. Now you are an astronaut or you’re on TV!
  • Use a puppet theater but instead of using puppets, use yourself!
  • Talk through the cut outs in board books.
  • Hold up a diving ring or pop toob to put a colorful circle around your face.
  • Cup your hands around your mouth, but hold them open wide enough to not cover your mouth. Then call out or “sing out” to objects/people that you are trying to find.
  • Play peek-a-boo with the slats around a crib… or anywhere with anything.
  • Wear bright lipstick! Then make lip stamps on paper for a fun mouth moving activity…”mmmmwah!”
  • Put on a paper plate mask with a large opening for your mouth – or any mask that shows your mouth.

Do something different or out of the ordinary

  • Imitate your toddler. We spend a lot of time saying words he isn’t yet able to say and encouraging him to try. It’s a perfect recipe for a toddler to tune you out! However, if we say “babadada” after they do it first, that might be different and interesting because mom and dad can say HIS sounds and then he may pay more attention since it’s something he can already do! Sometimes a little easy practice is a nice change.
  • Be forgetful. When you don’t remember where a highly preferred item is or can’t see it (when it’s clearly in view), this may prompt your little one to A) wonder what happened to you and/or B) desperately try to get your attention to help you. Either way, they are more likely to look at you.
  • Be incorrect. Similar to being forgetful, purposefully name their favorite toy or food or person something different with an uncertain tone then pause… wait. They, again, might think you are crazy or try to help their poor mom who just can’t seem to get things right.
  • Turn lights off and get out a flashlight! Don’t scare your little one with a spooky face, but put the light directly onto your mouth. Make some easy sounds “aaahhh” “oooo” “mmmm” so they can watch how your mouth changes.
  • Whisper. Teachers know this one well. If you turn off lights or clap your hands in a rhythm to see who’s paying attention, these subtle changes may help gain some control over a noisy room. Similarly, instead of talking loudly or even in a normal voice, try super quiet. When you whisper, your toddler may wonder what the secret is all about and watch you more intently.
  • Use an action around your mouth while you talk or make sounds. Make silly sounds like “aaaahhhh” and pat your mouth at the same time, that way they not only need to listen to what you are saying, but need to watch how you did that.

Once your little ones are watching you, they have a much better chance of doing what you’re doing and maybe even saying what you’re saying.

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