Transcript: Infant Language Development – How to Talk to an Infant

This is a text transcript from The First Time Mum’s Chat podcast. The episode is called Infant Language Development – How to Talk to an Infant and you can click on the link to view the full episode page, listen to the episode and view the show notes.

Helen Thompson: In an earlier episode of First Time Mum’s Chat, I talked about why it is important to talk to your baby. I’m very passionate about this subject and I’ve been on the lookout for an expert who lives and breathes this for a long time. My search is over and in this week’s episode, I’m revisiting this topic with Certified Academic Language Practitioner, Sarah Scheldt who supports families in this area.

During our chat, you’ll hear Sarah talk about how you can start creating language development that leads to literacy development as early as the third trimester of your pregnancy instead of waiting until after birth. Why you need to avoid the use of baby talk and instead talk to your baby using your regular speech style. The importance of helping to develop their phonemic awareness using rhythms and melodies. The importance of encouraging your little one to develop their imagination to help them evolve into better problem solvers.

And so, so much more…

Hi Sarah and welcome to First Time Mum’s Chat. I’m excited to be chatting to you today about early language development. Can you start by sharing with my audience what you do and why you’re so passionate about language development?

Sarah Scheldt: Sure, thank you so much for having me. My name is Sarah Scheldt, and I have been working in literacy for over 20 years. I work with moms and parents to really help create a literacy rich environment for their children. I work also with struggling readers to help them overcome their difficulties and really turn their obstacles into opportunities.

I’m a certified language practitioner, and so I really just love this topic of literacy and how we can really start creating language development that leads to literacy development really as early as the third trimester for moms. So I’m really excited to talk about this topic.

Helen Thompson: Well, thank you. I’m delighted to have you here because I’m also very passionate about language. I teach baby massage, and I’m aware of how important language is from the very early stages, even with the baby being in the womb, to when they’re born. They’re like sponges, they soak everything up and I think being able to chat with somebody who’s got a passion is a really good opportunity. So, if you’re working with a mum, how would you encourage them to develop language with their baby?

Sarah Scheldt: Sure, yes, so I think it’s important first to acknowledge that motherhood, especially with infants, can be very overwhelming. So I first just want to encourage all of the people listening that this is not an addition to what you’re already doing. So I want to alleviate the overwhelm of the right and the wrong, and really just start to incorporate language development in the natural routines that you already have in your life and in the life of your baby.

So as early as the third trimester, babies can actually start to hear things like tone, like rhythm, like melody. So reading aloud to your baby or having conversations with other people, they are going to start to pick up on those sounds. So when babies are born, they can actually distinguish between different sounds and tones that they have heard.

So having general conversations is really the first place to start. So if you have an infant, having conversations around those routines like changing the diaper, like feeding them. If you’re having outdoor experiences, having conversations around what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re noticing, and talking to your baby as if you were talking to a friend that you were having coffee with. Having those natural conversations. Just having them with your baby.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, I think that’s an important point because a lot of parents think that babies don’t understand and they talk baby talk to their babies and I think it’s really important that they hear those words from the very beginning and then they’ll know what they are. I had a wonderful experience with a grandmother. I was watching her talk to her baby. It was just so beautiful because you could see that the baby was listening and the baby was communicating.

The baby wasn’t talking like we are now, but you could hear that she understood and she was talking back in her own way and smiling and gurgling as if to say, oh yeah, that sounds interesting, thank you for sharing that with me. I think that’s a key to communication, it’s so important.

Sarah Scheldt: That’s right. There are studies that show that an infant as early as 3 – 4 hours old will actually start tracking with their eyes to really learn about the environment that they have found themselves in, in this little bit of a shocking way because they really are starting to pick up quickly on all of the social, visual sound cues that are in their environment and so they will start to track to learn about their environment and they are listening for that familiar sound. So with that language development, the more you speak to them, the more they are looking to you. They’re starting to what I call think with their eyes.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, it’s interesting you say tracking because I’m very much aware of crossing the midline, the midline being the sort of imaginary line between your two hemispheres, the left and right. It’s really interesting you say that because that’s how you learn to not only develop language, but to develop so much to get those two brains working and communicating together.

Sarah Scheldt: Yes, and understanding what I’m seeing and how do I process that. So when we talk about language development, sometimes people might think of speech patterns, articulation but language development also encompasses how am I processing, how am I hearing things and understanding and then how am I verbally expressing what I want to say?

So tracking becomes a very important component of that. If we think about readers, I work with kindergarten through second grade, mostly. If we think about readers, we want them to start tracking print. So infants are already starting to do this skill of tracking, and that’s why we say babies can’t wait. They really are building the foundation that will then lead into literacy development.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, people say that you should give babies a book, even if it’s just got pictures to start with, because that way they’re doing exactly what you’ve just shared, they’re learning to track the pictures. They may not understand the words, but they don’t have to have words necessarily.

Sarah Scheldt: That’s right and just like babies learn through visual cues, through auditory cues, they also learn by grasping. That’s why babies will start to grab for anything and then put it into their mouth. So, another way to use a book is through that oral conversation.

So, you don’t even have to read the words, really, to a child that’s very young. You can point… use their finger and point around the picture and have a conversation. Oh, that’s a cow. This cow is black and white. A cow makes the moo sound and you can just have that general conversation because what will happen is the more children hear a book, the more comforting it will become and you can incorporate this type of thing, reading aloud with your child, reading around the pictures, describing all that you see, all that the sounds that you could hear in that picture. That builds in a very comforting routine for you and your child that creates a connection, that creates a bond, that then will grow with them.

I read at one point that children should really be read aloud to or with a grown up until 18, because it creates such a connection between humans that if you start that early it can become a soothing bedtime routine, it can become a routine when your child is having a big emotion to allow them to have something to help regulate those feelings that you have naturally built in. So again, it’s not something extra, it’s something that’s a really nice built in routine that has long lasting impact.

Helen Thompson: I agree with that 100 percent because I think talking at an early age, like you said, really helps and the patterns and the melodies are really important. When I teach baby massage, I’m encouraging the parents to talk to their babies whilst they’re massaging, like saying, okay, this is your left leg. I’m going to pick up your left leg and we’re going to give it a massage. We might do a little train track song and we’re just going to massage that and I think that is so, so important because as you mentioned, it’s the bonding, it’s the communication, it’s giving them that language development. Also the cues you mentioned earlier, it’s giving them the cues to say, okay, well, maybe I don’t want my leg massaged, they pull it away or I don’t want this. It’s giving them all that opportunity to say what they want and that’s what you mentioned earlier, which I think is so valuable. As a language instructor or specialist, I guess that’s what you’re doing. You’re encouraging the child, even if they find it hard to communicate, not forcing the issue, just gently talking to them and communicating with them.

Sarah Scheldt: That’s right, and I think that teaching our children that their voice does matter is so important and what a more beautiful way to help your child navigate difficult situations than finding a book that helps them express those feelings. I’m also glad that you brought up singing because for very young children, what we call in the literacy world, phonemic awareness, children learn to hear sounds and manipulate sounds before they put those sounds to actual print. So one of the other really important foundation pieces is this phonemic awareness. How are we hearing the sounds? So rhyming, jump rope rhymes, all of the old Humpty Dumpty, those types of rhymes and finger plays. Even making up your own song to row, row, row your boat, if it’s bath time, or if it’s getting dressed. Putting conversation in something that is lyrical, that has that rhythm and that melody, is really a great tool to build that foundation. Just as your child gets older, playing little rhyming games, cat, hat, mat, sat. Listening to that pattern of rhyme is really going to help their literacy development.

Helen Thompson: When you say cat, mat, hat, I think of that book of is it Dr. Seuss?

Sarah Scheldt: He does a lot of rhyme.

Helen Thompson: When I read those to kids, I think, Oh gosh, I’m not sure that I can cope with all this, but it is important to do. Here in Australia, we have somebody called Mem Fox. She writes, like Possum Magic. I don’t know if you’ve heard of mem Fox, but she writes a lot of books about Australia and about all the wild animals and everything in Australia and how they communicate and how they interact with each other and I think that’s the key as well, because you’re teaching your child not only about language with themselves, but language with animals as well.

Sarah Scheldt: Yes, one of the things that my circle of writer friends talk about is how books are like mirrors and windows. Yes. So we can see and discover ourselves through a book and we can look through a book like a window and discover what the world is like for other people. What are their experiences? Books really can be a powerful resource for conversations, for understanding people and experiences that are the same as ours and that are different than ours and I think if we can really start to understand both ourselves and others better, what an impact of just kindness and peace I think that that would bring to so many people.

Helen Thompson: I agree with you. I think that’s very true because I think it’s so powerful and empowering to be able to teach a child at a young age to do that, because then when they get older, they’ll want to read, they’ll want to find out more about the world and what’s going on, and they don’t have to listen to the news to do that. They can pick up a book or go to the library or go to a bookshop and think, all right, well, I’d like to find out more information maybe about the Vikings or anything like that, that they can just go and find a book and read about it and learn. If you start that from when they’re young and show them books and show them that books are resources that they can find information from. I know there’s Google and I know there’s technology, but I think it’s important to start them from reading a book to find that resource through the book and through the written material, rather than turning on a computer and reading what Google’s got to say.

Sarah Scheldt: Right and also tapping into just the imagination that it takes to create a story and the beautiful illustrations that an artist puts in to a picture book, for example and when we are reading a story, use all of the voices. One of my favorite book series that I love to read to some of the kids that I work with, is the Mercy Watson series. It’s by Kate DiCamillo and it has beautiful characters and illustrations and I love doing the voices because it brings the story to life in a way that the kids love it and they want to read it. Even if they’re not able to read that book independently on their own yet, it gives them something to strive for. I want to be able to pick up that book for myself. So just using voice and actions to create worlds for children where it’s fun and it’s exciting and they want to then go pick up a book.

Or if I have read a book that the kids have loved I will say, hey, if you really loved this book, then I think you’re going to love this book too. Maybe you want to check that out the next time you go to the library. Being a resource for them to also come to as someone that they trust that can guide them to books that, that they will enjoy.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, there’s so many books out there that can help with your imagination. You can imagine how they speak and you can imagine like you’re actually inside the book with the characters. That’s what I love about books. When I read a book, I get so engrossed with the characters that I think, oh, I feel as though I’m actually living next door to them because you get such a connection with them and you use your imagination to help develop that. That’s all part of role playing with kids as well and if they’ve got a book to read and look at the pictures, even if they’re not reading the words, they’re just looking at the pictures, they can then take that a step further and use their imaginary play to develop their language and talk to their mom about what they read in the book.

Sarah Scheldt: Yes, and I think having an imagination also really helps children become problem solvers, because they get to figure things out. With your imagination if you face a problem, okay, what are several possibilities? How could you figure this out? So it really helps kids become unstuck if they can use that imagination and create possibilities to solve their own problems and just thinking about mothers with young children. One of the things that we often see is a child will love a certain book.

Right now one of my very good friends has a baby. She’s seven months old and he already really loves the board books that have the flip-up. They reveal a character or something underneath the cardboard flip up, and she said he loves those books. Anytime we get that book his face just lights up. He giggles. He loves that book. So I just want to encourage parents not to be afraid of reading the same book over and over again. Sometimes it might feel like we’ve read this book 100 times, but your child, as they even get older and can verbalize, will ask for that book again. It really brings a sense of comfort and confidence if kids are reading books over and over.

Helen Thompson: I agree, I’ve done that with kids. They’ll say, oh, can I read that Humpty Dumpty book or whatever it is again. I like lifting up the flips and they know exactly who’s under there but you might pretend you don’t know. It’s just lovely to see their faces smiling and eventually you’ll hear them saying cat or dog or mat and that to me is so rewarding because you know, that you’ve done a good job of encouraging your child to read from very young.

Sarah Scheldt: That’s right and you can always connect your outside experiences with a book. So if you’re going on an outside walk and you see lots of trees, use that in your conversation if there are trees in the book that you’re reading. You can refer back, Oh, remember when we went on our walk and we saw some trees and they had lots of fall colors. Here’s a picture of another tree that has lots of fall colors.

You can make up the conversation with your infant as you go and starting to make those connections with real life experiences and what kids then will see in books and different types of reading print materials.

Helen Thompson: Yeah and it also doesn’t have to be with the literacy and the language, as you say, with that. You could take your kid for a walk and talk to them about what they see outside. Talk to them about what can you see, what story can you tell me about what’s happening around you? You don’t have to put it in those words, but they will say, Oh, I’m imagining I’m doing whatever I’m doing and it’s really lovely watching them and listening to them because then you can involve them and be part of their story and encouraging them to use that language. Books are great but it doesn’t have to be from a book, or if they’ve seen something, as you say, outside, you can find a book that’s got some more information about what they found, so you can talk to them about that too. I guess it’s cars and it’s trucks when they’re younger and they’re beginning to like cars and trucks or dolls or babies or whatever it is, you can then encourage them, take them to a bookshop or a library and say, Oh, I’ve found a book that’s got a dumper truck, would you like to have a look? It’s encouraging them to have the power to read and have the information to do what they want to do.

Sarah Scheldt: That’s right, and it all starts with that language development of how are we hearing sounds, interpreting sounds, how are we speaking and communicating, that then really goes into the print literacy that we want to build them toward.

Helen Thompson: Before we finish, we mentioned when we had a chat about talking to the baby when they’re actually in the womb, about developing language when they’re actually in the womb. So can you tell us a little bit about your experience of that and how you’d support a mom with that?

Sarah Scheldt: Sure, as new mothers probably know, a lot is happening when they are in their months of pregnancy and babies are developing. So by the third trimester, they actually do have their ears and so they are able to hear about 10 decibels lower than what we’re able to hear now. So they are able to pick up on melody, on rhythm, on different sounds. So already starting to talk to your baby, read to your baby, have nursery rhymes or songs that have nice, soothing tones will really start to encourage already that development.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, because I’ve heard people saying they listen to music and they actually put the iPad or whatever it is on their tummy and the babies can actually hear that music, and so when they’re born, or even when they get to 2 or 3, they’ve heard that music so that it’ll be more of a recognition for them and they’ll think, oh, I remember that music, it’s all repetition.

Sarah Scheldt: It can be a self soothing because it’s something that is comforting to them.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, and if they’ve felt it before they’re born and you put that music on, when they are born, it might help them to sleep, it might help them to relax because it’s something that they remember when they were in the womb.

Sarah Scheldt: Yes, like I said, it’s never too early to start. Babies really cannot wait to be engrossed in language development.

Helen Thompson: Yeah, they’re like sponges. They want to learn, they love to find out about the world, they’re experimenting and they’re learning and it’s important for us as parents to help them to develop that.

Sarah Scheldt: That’s right. It takes everyone.

Helen Thompson: So is there anything that you’d like to mention that we haven’t covered?

Sarah Scheldt: Sure, I think just doing what you’re naturally doing already as new caregivers, really just incorporating these tips and tricks into your already established routine and I hope that there were a few takeaways that I know busy moms, especially with new babies who might be feeling a little sleep deprived can just have your regular normal conversation with your babies and there’s really no judgment, no right or wrong, just keep showing up as your great self.

Helen Thompson: Well thank you for sharing all your wonderful tips. I could talk to you forever about language because I think it’s so, so valuable. If anybody wanted to find out more about you, how would they go about doing that?

Sarah Scheldt: Sure, I have a website, it’s and you can go there, there’s a way to connect with me personally. You can see all of the work that I do. I work with children mostly who have some type of reading difficulty, not necessarily a disability, but I do work with children. I actually also work with moms who are feeling like they are overwhelmed and might just be going through the motions of life and want to feel like they are thriving and not just surviving day to day and I also do talks for different organizations on how we can take our obstacles and really turn them into opportunities that have a great impact on not just our lives, but the lives of our children moving into their futures.

Helen Thompson: Oh, thank you. You do a lot. So thank you for being here, Sarah. As I said, I could talk to you forever about language because it’s such an important topic, especially in these days when people use computers and technology a lot more and they’re not experiencing the actual feel of a book and feel how language actually works. So thank you for sharing with me, I appreciate it.

Sarah Scheldt: Well, thank you so much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation together.

Helen Thompson: Wow, Sarah shared some great tips and strategies and I learnt a lot from her. I highly recommend checking out Sarah’s website and social media and I’ve also included a link to the episode I put together that I mentioned earlier. These can be found in the show notes at

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Next week, I’ll be talking with mother of 2, mindset mentor, time management guru and alignment coach for mums, Jill Wrightabout her coming book, which is the culmination of 20 years of work. It is geared towards anyone who wants to create a better life for themselves and is willing to do some work and is a collection of the most impactful and inspiring quotes, ideas, practices, habits, tactics, and strategies that Jill has come across in the past two decades.

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