Building Blocks of Childhood: What We Know About Communication Between Infants and Parents

Baby's first word is a day as jubilant as the first time she walks. It is a momentous occasion in the life of a family.

What parents may not realize is the "important day" sticker should also mark an event that goes like this: Baby finishes her bottle, says "aah" and hands it to mommy. "Ahh" doesn't sound like a word, but baby has added a helpful gesture. She's communicating! Another feat between the ages of 8 and 12 months is: Baby looks at daddy and points at the passing kitty cat. Another: Baby looks at her favorite doll on the shelf, looks at mommy's face and back to the doll. These acts communicate baby's desires and interests, and for this reason, they represent a critical stage in prelinguistic development.

Communication is a complex dance of thinking, moving, hearing, imitating, and eventually interacting. Infants use each of these functions. And they learn, in time, that it takes two to dance. The growing rapport between parent and child is critical in the early years, says Steven F. Warren, professor of human development and director of the Schiefelbusch Institute for Life Span Studies at the University of Kansas. According to his research with Paul Yoder at Vanderbilt University, Warren says, "Once the baby is able to interact, mommy and baby will engage in give and take, sound and gesture in a way that actually stimulates the child's development."

For families whose children have developmental disabilities, the steps of the dance aren't always clear, says Warren. Autistic children typically don't look their parents in the face -- a key signal for communication -- and so parents may not initiate conversation or know when their child wants something. Because a child with a developmental delay may not have full motor control, she may not make sounds that adults enjoy, recognize and reward.

Early childhood research tells us that a baby making frequent and increasingly complex sounds -- even if they're nonsense -- is developing a strong language base that supports later success. Researchers can tell us a great deal about the building blocks of language in the first years of life. Parents should know this information because a significant delay in communication skills may be a signpost of disability.

Warren co-directed a Merrill conference with Mabel Rice for the purpose of sorting out the causes of language disabilities in children with Down's syndrome, Williams syndrome, fragile X syndrome, specific language impairment, autism, and other disabilities that may have a genetic component. A book containing papers delivered at the conference was published by Lawrence Erlbaum in 2004.


This is the first in a four-part series, The Building Blocks of Childhood, with Steven Warren and Nancy Brady, scientists at the Schiefelbusch Life Span Institute, and written by Joy Simpson. The series includes:


Part 1: What we know about communication between infants and parents

Part 2: Signposts of Disability: What Parents Can Observe

Part 3: The Value of an Interactive Environment

Part 4: Prelinguistic Milieu Teaching: A Boost for Children Age 2


McLean, Lee K. (September 1990). Communication development in the first two years of life: A transactional process. Zero to Three, 13-19.

Mundy, Peter and Stella, Jennifer (2002). Joint attention, social orienting and communication in autism. In A. Wetherby and B. Prizant (Editors). Communication and language intervention series: Volume 9. Autism spectrum disorders: A transactional developmental perspective. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing Company.

Stoel-Gammon, Carol (1989). Prespeech and early speech development of two late talkers. First language, 9, 207-224.

Yoder, P. J., Warren, S. F., McCathren, R., and Leew, S.V. (1998). Does adult responsivity to child behavior facilitate communication development? In A. M. Wetherby, S.F. Warren, and J. Reichle (Editors). Communication and language intervention series: Volume 7. Transitions in prelinguistic communication. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing Company.

Yoder, Paul J. and Warren, Steven F. (1998). Maternal responsivity predicts the extent to which prelingusitic communication intervention facilitates generalized intentional communication. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 41, 1207-1219.