Four Tips for Introducing New Foods at Meals



1. Easy Does It

When we’re offering new foods to our children, we want to make the experience underwhelming for them rather than overwhelming. Also, key word there: offer, not force. In other words, we have to give them small amounts of the foods we’re trying to get them to passionately love one day. For example, if you have a bowl of peas, you’ll want to put a small portion on their plates and also, be mindful of how much of their favorite food you’re putting on the plate as well. Offer a small portion of the favorite food and an even smaller portion of the new food.. If you absolutely fill up their plate with their favorite food, they’re less likely to have room for their least favorite foods. So, try to offer them just a small portion of their favorite food and a very small portion of the new food you are offering.

2. Give Choices
Even better than you putting a small portion on their plates, ask them if they’d like to serve themselves (if they’re able to do this without throwing the bowl off of the table, falling into the bowl of peas, etc.) Ask them if they’d like to serve with the blue spoon or the green spoon. Or ask them on which part of the plate they would like this small serving of peas. If you give them some options, they feel more in control of the situation and will be more likely to let that food be invited onto their plate. And having a say in what we eat and how much we eat is something we all like regardless of our age.


3.If At First You Don’t Succeed

If at first you don’t succeed, you might need to try about ten to twelve times. Studies have shown that children with more limited diets might need to see a food and be close to it without even eating it between ten to twenty times before they’re willing to try it. Sometimes if we offer something once and a child says no, we think, that’s it. He doesn’t like it. But, sometimes it’s a matter of exposure.

4. If You’re Happy & You Know It
Show your enjoyment of the food you’re eating. The goal isn’t to make your child feel compelled to try the food but rather, to show that this food is good, safe, and tasty. If while you’re eating, you tell your spouse, “thanks for making this cauliflower. It’s so delicious!”  and your child chimes in to say, “No, it’s yucky! It’s disgusting!” your response might be to say, “no it’s not! You don’t mean that. Cauliflower is amazing!” Well your kiddo doesn’t think so, and it’s alright that your child has not so positive feelings towards cauliflower. We have to be okay with kids having their feelings and feeling their feelings. We aren’t going to talk them out of how they feel. Instead, we can use this as a teaching moment, “Josh, I hear you saying you don’t like this food and that’s ok. We can see though that other people like it and we want to let people enjoy the things they like.”  Try to bring it to a level they can understand, without getting upset about it or feeling like your child needs to change their feelings around it. For kids who are getting a little older, they may need to modify how they’re talking about food to be sensitive to other people eating around them, but remember, these are all lessons learned little by little. It’s okay that they have their feelings and it’s also okay to teach them to be respectful of what other people enjoy. Find times when you’re calmer and cooler to use these moments to teach about respecting other people’s food choices and being able to express themselves.

Why Your Child Might Be a Picky Eater

Why does your child want the same foods over and over again? Why are mealtimes a struggle? We might think he’s just being stubborn, like his dad. Or that he just really loves those veggie straws. There is a chance though that there are underlying issues that are making eating more challenging, even uncomfortable for your child. As a speech therapist who works with children with feeding challenges, part of my work is to screen for underlying causes to picky eating and refer to other healthcare specialists so that your child is at their best for learning to eat new foods. I recommend parents take a look at the following:

1. Check up on those teeth. How are your child’s teeth? Do they need a dental check up? Are they super anxious about letting anyone near their mouths? Find a good pediatric dentist to rule out cavities or other issues that might be making chewing uncomfortable.

2. How are the things going in the bathroom? If your child isn’t using the bathroom daily, there may be a reason he doesn’t want to eat. If you had an upset, bloated stomach, think of how painful eating would be. Talk with your doctor about why he might not be going to the bathroom. A common cause of constipation can be too little fiber. And I realize your child isn’t at the stage where they’re going to start munching on brussell sprouts, but don’t worry, we’ll get there. Another reason behind less frequent visits to the bathroom  can be due to a food sensitivity with dairy being the number one culprit. Talk to your doctor to find out why (he may refer you to an allergist, a dietitian, or a nutritionist) and in the meantime, we’ll also discuss other ways to get in that fiber!

3. The five senses. Your child’s five senses (actually six senses when we include their vestibular system which means  their sense of balance) can impact their ability to eat. If your child appears to be very sensitive to touch or seeks out a lot of touch (like they’re crashing into everything all of the time), becomes easily upset or seem to get overwhelmed by noise, there may be a sensory processing issue occurring. An occupational therapist specialized in this area can help your child learn to integrate the sight, sound, touch, smell, and visual (and balance) information that they’re getting so that the body is in a calmer, more ready state to eat.

4. Tethered oral tissue. Tethered oral tissue refers to lip or tongue attachments (tongue ties) that may be causing your child difficulty having the range of motion they need with their tongue and/or lips to chew their food. If your child had difficulty breastfeeding that wasn’t due to milk supply but more so to latch, this can be a good indicator. An SLP or OT specialized in this area can help to identify when a tethered oral tissue may be impacting feeding and refer to an ENT or dentist for a diagnosis. If your child is still breastfeeding, it would be best to speak with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultation.

5.  Abs of Steel? If your child has core weakness or has a condition that results in hypotonia (low muscle tone), they may have more difficulty eating. If your child does not have the strength to sit up without staying propped up constantly on their elbows or without leaning forward or backward when eating, your child may need improved muscle strength and precision to be a better eater. Working with a physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech therapist depending on where the areas of weakness are can improve your child’s ability to eat.

It can feel like quite the journey at times to get at the root of a child’s feeding difficulties. It is a journey well worth taking as a child’s eating habits are a strong predictor of their health as an adult. Often children have had an underlying condition or difficulty with chewing a certain texture of food and have learned to avoid entire food textures, food groups, or everything but Veggie Straws. Understanding why you child might be having difficulty feeding gives us more compassion for his difficulties at mealtime and helps us to get to the root cause so that we get them feeding better and being healthier sooner. This information is intended to substitute medical advice. If you have any concerns about your child’s feeding, speak with your doctor.

Five Activities Outside of Mealtime to Help Your Picky Eater

Let me start off this post with a disclaimer. I do not think that we should call children picky eaters, at least not to their faces. Or at all 🙂 Labeling a child like that can really in grain in them that this is who they are- a child who doesn’t like many foods, especially those healthy foods we want them to eat. I write about picky eaters because that’s what first comes to mind when your child pushes that bowl of soup aside or throws the carrots off the table- that he’s being picky!  Yes, some of their actions are based on behaviors and these behaviors are driving you bonkers. But, we want to change our mindset about what a picky eater is- a child that for whatever reason, usually not to just make you mad, has decided that certain foods are safe and others are not safe to eat. Often we try to insist on new foods and in large amounts when your child may have only a few preferred foods and this leads to meltdowns at mealtimes. So, I have some suggestions that involve increasing your child’s positive experiences with food and ability to connect with food outside of mealtime so that eventually, he allows for a few peas on the plate, and then with time a whole lot of peas and yeah, maybe that steamed asparagus stalk too.
Angry Child

1. Take your child shopping. Some days grocery shopping is more like go-cart racing as you frantically make your way through the aisles to get home in time to make dinner. On the days though when you have a little extra time, use it as an opportunity to teach your child about new foods and explore. Stroll around the grocery store and pick up, smell, tap on the food, and talk about it. Talk about fruits and vegetables like the super heroes they are and all that they do for our bodies. Ask your child if you should name the broccoli King Broccoli or Super Broccoli. Grocery store time can be a great time to connect with and educate your child about food.

2. Play with your food. Outside of mealtime, have children play with their food. Why would you do that? Why would you waste food? As babies, children develop their comfort around food through touch. First the hand gets the sense of how an object feels and then the food (or the baby shoe) goes into their mouth. Some children have not had this input. They need to have the food at a safe enough distance to explore and touch (many times) before they’re willing to put it in their mouths. in order to feel comfortable around food. Make faces using a few different vegetables carrot stick smiles and grape eyes. Drive cars through chia seed pudding (the chia seeds you bought in bulk from Costco, because no, you don’t need to spend a ton of money each time you do this.) Remember, your child doesn’t need to eat these foods. It’s just to offer exposure.

3. Get plenty of exercise. If children are spending too much time in sedentary positions, time on the i-pad or in front of the television, they may have difficulty getting their appetites going. Before a meal, try taking your child to the park or if you have the space in your home, toss a ball back and forth. If you can get your child to a state in which they’ve exerted some effort, they’re calmer (but not totally exhausted) then you might get better results at the table.

4. Read about it. My parents tell me that I was quite a picky eater when I was younger, although I don’t recall ever saying no to anything. I do, however, remember them reading me the book, “Gregory the Terrible Eater” many times. It’s about a goat whose parents can’t get him to chomp down on boots or eat buttons. Gregory, instead, wants to eat fruits and vegetables, much to his parents dismay. The book ends with Gregory and his parents compromising. Gregory will eat some food from the junk yard mixed in with his favorites.  There are some fun books out there, “I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato”  Also, for children with more challenging feeding skills, social stories around food may be appropriate. A social story basically describes how children can navigate a challenging situation in easy to understand language. It’s a very non-judgmental, straight forward approach. You can even create your own social stories. Also, are goats really known for eating everything?

5. Praise your child’s effort for any new attempts. Remember what it was like when you were a child and that at times, there were foods you didn’t want to eat. Even now, if another adult were to prepare something that you didn’t quite like, it would be tempting to fake a stomach ache.  Remember that our words have power. We want to avoid labeling our child by their actions. Instead, let’s look at any effort that they’ve put forth and praise that. “Wow, thank you for helping dad choose some healthy foods for our family at the store. I see you put spinach in the cart.”  “Look at that effort you made smelling that orange and holding it in your hands.”  Again, look for the positive things that they have done and build momentum. It’s not about them being compliant or picky. It’s about the effort that they make to do difficult things. For some children, eating a salad with all of the different textures and  flavors is a huge achievement. It’s good to recognize when they make strides, no matter how small they are and focus on the effort they’ve made rather than labeling them.

Signs of a Feeding Issue and when to speak further with your doctor about seeing a feeding speciailist (a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist):

  • Dietary restriction your child eats less than twenty different foods
  • Tantrums/becomes very upset when offered new foods and will not tolerate new foods on their plate
  • Refuses certain food textures completely
  • Meal times are often stressful and your child does not typically eat what other family members eat
  • Lack of growth and weight gain

Please remember, this is not a substitute for healthcare advice. If you have any concerns around your child’s feeding, please speak with your pediatrician.

Technology & Your Toddler Part 3

First of all, I realize that it’s not so helpful for me to tell you to turn off your child’s screen without giving a. a reason to do so and b. some alternatives. So, here we go:

A. Let’s me just remind you about what I’ve discussed in other posts. Why can’t we let toddlers and babies watch hours of TV and i-pad?

  • Even if your baby or toddler is hearing the ABC’s sung to him or watching Dora as she takes her bilingual bike trip through the park, these activities might not be developmentally appropriate (as in their brains aren’t ready to understand what’s happening and can’t process the information any better than they could soak in a lesson on algebra or comprehend the  debate on why or why not we should leave NATO.) Babies and toddlers learn words, emotions, thinking skills, etc. through using many of their senses, such as playing with blocks, looking at books, pushing a train, and especially when this learning is done with another person.
  • Peaceful moments *can* come at a price. If your baby/toddler stays busy and quiet with screen time now, later on, she might have more difficulty paying attention, sitting down, and learning. Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington, says that in the first two years of life, the brain triples in size. Connections that form in the brain, or synapses, are based on early life experiences. Over-exposure to rapid image changes during these first years of critical brain development, which is what cartoons essentially are, preconditions the mind to expect high levels of stimulation. This can make for a fidgety, inattentive child when it’s time to go to school. Studies have linked higher amounts of screen time before three years of age with attention problems in school. Eventually you gotta pay the Pied Piper for the peace that comes with your child being glued to a device. But, there are other options that can be great for babies brain and for getting things done on your to-do list.

In following up on my last post, I want to offer some ideas for developmentally appropriate activities for your child that do not involve technology and that can be done mostly independently.

I suggest, first of all, baby proofing your home. There are companies who will actually come and do this for you! This one was recommended by a physical therapist who works with babies and toddlers.  This way when you need to start cooking while baby is playing, you’ll know that your baby is in a safe environment.

Here are my favorite activities according to age group:

One-Year-Old- Stock up on some of those touchy-feely books that babies can handle. This provides some sensory input and is a good way to get them interested in books from a young age.

Two-Years-Old- Puzzles. Those big chunky puzzles (not the ones with small pieces) can provide independent play time for your small child.

Three-Years-Old- Pretend play. This is a great time to get your three year old some costumes (i.e. your old clothes you were planning on donating) and some play food and let them spend time using their imagination to make creations in their kitchen.

Four & Five-Years-Old- Arts & crafts! Finally they are old enough to play with some simple crafts without eating them (unless your child does eat them in which case, head on back up to the pretend play). These wipe off crayons from Melissa & Doug are great for easy clean up.

I also asked a mom’s group what some of their favorite activities are for their baby and toddler. Here they are in no particular order

For baby:

  • Look at fish in your aquarium (if you have one)- this by the way is awesome. Because yes, the baby is looking at something for long periods of time but it’s not that rapid, frequently changing images that’s really overstimulating.
  • A wooden spoon and a big metal bowl (why overthink it, right?)
  • A box of tissues. It’ll buy twenty minutes while you’re prepping dinners although there is some clean up involved.

For toddler:

  • Fridge magnets (great way to keep them close too. If they are still putting things in their mouths though,  then you’ll want to wait until they’re past that mouthing stage.
  • Train sets (usually they get interested in these around 18-24 months of age)
  • Blocks
  • Magnatiles- some parents say their kids play with these for years and years to come
  • A cup and water in a bucket for water play (warning, this might get messy!)

Thank you for the sharing, Moms in the Bay Area!

Share the activities your child most loves that are technology free!

Technology and Your Toddler Part 2

This is a follow up from my first post on using technology with your toddler. We are inundated with technology from endless apps on our phones to constant questions for Alexa. There’s not a lot of information yet about the effects of so much technology on us socially, emotionally, and physically, especially on toddlers. From what I’ve researched, I’ve come up with some tips to balance out technology use so that it doesn’t take over your life or the life of your little one.

Technology is neither good nor bad. 

Technology has its place in the home. Some parents are told that all technology is terrible while others feel that a few hours (or many, many hours) a day of technology is a good thing. Some sneaky marketers out there want you to believe that your child can learn anything and everything from apps. We don’t need to be afraid of technology, we just need to be educated about how to use it. How much is too much? Do I let my child have free access to all of the YouTube that his little fingers can find and somehow manages to find despite being only three and not knowing how to read?! Below are recommendations on smart technology use from the AAP.

For children under two years of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:

  • For children under 18 months of age, use the phone for chatting conversations with relatives. Using it for other reasons, like to entertain baby when you’re cooking, using the bathroom, etc. isn’t encouraged.

Don’t worry, I’ll share more ideas though on what to do when you do need to take that daily shower and baby is bored in my next post.

  • For children 18 months to five years of age, limit screen time to one hour per day. And make sure it is high quality screen time.

What is meant by high quality screen time? T.V. Shows like Sesame Street or PBS Kids are good channels to go to. It’s recommended that you spend time watching these show with them so that they understand what they’re seeing.

Technology not being good or bad also means that we don’t use it as a reward or a punishment. Wait, what? Yep, that’s right. Telling your child, “If you are good here at the store, I will let you watch an extra hour of t.v.” is rarely effective in the moment to get better behavior but it also creates this energy (I know, such a an academic term, right, but stay with me) around the phone or i-pad. In their book, How to Talk So Small Children Listen, Faber & King discuss that by making something, like technology, the object of a reward or punishment, you create more desire for it. Now, if your child does do something like throw the phone at his sibling, then yes, you’re taking away the technology (the phone) but banning technology for a month for instance, isn’t going to make your child lose interest in technology. They’ll just be pretty upset about it and then you might have to back peddle two weeks in when you realize that the month long ban was a bit extreme.

How to Turn Off the Technology

When it is time for your child to transition to a different activity, here’s a few tips to make those transitions easier

  1. Give them a five minute warning (and then maybe a two minute warning if they need it.) If you have a visual timer, that’s even better.
  2. Sing a goodbye song to the technology and turn it off.
  3. If your child is getting upset and crying, acknowledge that it’s sad to say goodbye to an activity. It’s okay for them to feel sad. You don’t have to give in and give the phone back. Just let them know you hear that they’re sad.
  4. Once your child is calm, give your child options of what the next activity will be, if possible (i.e. Do you want to play with the trucks now or do you want to go outside and run around?)

Experience Teaches Toddlers Not Technology

Toddlers learn through experience and interacting with other people. Sure, there are some fun songs on YouTube and some super cute videos on Sesame Street that can be fun but the real learning is in the sharing of these songs with a parent.

  • Turn off the background noise. Playing t.v. in the background is linked with worse outcomes for language and cognition.
  • Books are better for learning than apps! Read books often with your children. If your child doesn’t seem to like books, check out my last post on book reading or visit Colorin Colorado for some ideas on how to spice up your book reading.

Use technology wisely. Common Sense Media offers some fantastic ideas on how to use technology wisely. Please subscribe to new posts below and send in any questions you might have!

 

Technology & Your Toddler

Hi Parents! I started out writing this article to talk about setting limits around screen time with your child. When I sat down and started browsing through the articles online, I realized that before we control our toddler’s access to technology, we need to control our own.  Recent studies report that children feel their parents are using too much screen time and that they don’t feel like their parents are paying enough attention to them. Yikes!   This blog post is in no way intended to shame any parent out there. There are a lot of things we can get done on our phones, our days are busy, and the notifications never stop. Also, overusing technology may be a way to cope with anxiety and depression. It’s definitely worth examining our habits to see why we might be using something in excess. So, what can parents do? Here are a few ways to get started:

  • Always greet your child, whether in the morning before school or when they come home, phone down and out of your hand, with a hug, a kiss, and an I love you!
  • Find 15-30 minutes each day for play with toys or reading books. Playing with playdough, dolls, cars, or blowing bubbles are all great ways to connect to each other and disconnect from tech. Chase each other around the park or build a tent. This website from TRUCE has some great ideas on how to get started in play!
  • Keep your bedrooms device free. At the end of the day, when it’s time to kiss your children goodnight, first leave the phones in the living room to recharge, tell them goodnight, and then take your children to their bedrooms. End the evening with time spent face to face.

By giving your child some one on one time, you will boost their language and thinking skills. Technology might be taking over the world but it will never make your job as a parent irrelevant!

Subscribe below to receive updates on new blogs. Watch for my next post where I discuss how to manage your child’s phone use and what activities you can use that won’t just keep them busy but will keep them learning!

A Follow-Up on Books

I have a follow up story to my last post about books and why they are holy. I work in a school district whose students come from low income homes. I have really made it my quest to emphasize the importance of book reading so that parents understand the many wonders that books (not I-pads) can do for children. A recent meeting that I had with a parent opened up my eyes to how important book reading is throughout our entire lives and gave me a perspective on books I’d never had before. The parent, an administrator from the school, and I were seated in a small office discussing her son’s individual education plan. When we discussed strategies to help him understand and grow his vocabulary, books came up, naturally. The mother confessed that she had trouble reading and had never gotten to a point where she could sit down, pick up a book, and get totally lost in the story. She wants her son to one day be able to do that because she sees how important reading can be in a person’s life. She told us the story of how a few years back she was visiting her brother on the island of Tonga. He had just gotten out of prison. He had spent several years in prison. They were spending some time on the beach, relaxing and not doing much. He had brought a book with him in his backpack. He opened the book and asked his sister that they read together. She began to read out loud, but after a few moments of halted sounding out of words, he took the book from her and said, “Let me read. You’re going too slow. It sounds like you’ve never read out loud before. When I was in prison, the only thing that got me through being bored and lonely was books. Do you know how much you can learn from books? Do you know what you can find out from these? ” He took the book from her and began to read out loud and she leaned next to him and listened. And she was hooked on listening to a story in a way she hadn’t been fore. She confessed that it’s still hard to read and understand at the same time. A lot of readers don’t get passed the stage of being able to sound out the words (decoding.) Because there hasn’t been consistent practice sounding out the words and starting to understand them, this reader could only decode and not comprehend. And when a person doesn’t comprehend, there’s very little motivation to keep reading. That’s why reading has to start young and start out positive. Books can get people through some of their hardest times. Books offer us knowledge, allow us to question and think critically about our world. They can be our friends and our inspiration. I love books!

Singing: What It Does for Speech & Language!

Most of us adults forget how as children we often had music and singing around us on a daily basis.   I remember as a child being sung nursery rhymes likes Humpty Dumpty or Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes by my grandmother. I don’t think my grandmother, or anyone in my family for that matter, is known for being a talented singer (apologies to my parents and any siblings cousins who might be reading this). In spite of that, I loved it when my grandmother would sing to me and my siblings. It seems with technology replacing a lot of face to face time, some of us might start to believe that the songs that even small toddlers can find by themselves on YouTube are a superior substitution to the sometimes off-tune voices of parents and caregivers. But, this isn’t necessarily true. Sure, children are often fascinated with the music they find on YouTube but small children don’t necessarily absorb the words as much as the images they are seeing. They learn best from human interaction (Kuhl, Tsao, Liu, 2003).

Singing songs can be an excellent way to teach your child your primary language! Also, depending on your child’s communication development, it can be a great way to target so many communication goals: social interaction, language comprehension, improving speech-sound production, and even preparing children to be better readers in the future (Kirk & Gillon, 2007). Children’s songs can add to your child’s vocabulary, and because there is so much repetition in the verses, it can help them with vocabulary retention.

When I first began working in early intervention, I noticed some of the parents I worked with  were hesitant at first to sing with their child. When I would bring out a little bus to sing about the wheels on the bus, the reaction I got wasn’t always enthusiastic. “My child doesn’t like singing.”  “Songs don’t interest him.”  “She only likes to listen to YouTube.”  When I first started out as a new clinician, I believed this and put the little bus away, opting for the bubbles instead  as they’re always a crowd pleaser. But, with some of the children who seemed less resistant, I persisted. And here is what I usually saw:

It takes some time before they join in. Rarely on a first session would a child join in and sing along with me. In the beginning,  most children would look up at me with a mix of curiosity and suspicion as I sang while opening and closing my cupped hands to make a twinkling little star. They usually didn’t even try to sing along until the sixth or seventh visit. However, their parents mentioned that usually after being exposed to the song just a few times, their child would hum it or say a few words to himself after I left.

Repetition Is Key. If you sing a song once or twice and the child doesn’t join in or even show interest and prefer instead to knock over the elephant  you’ve placed in front of them as you’re singing Un elefante don’t scrap the song. Persist. Sing the song a few times during the day, while you’re in the car, or discreetly while you’re in line at the store. If your child will let you, help her make the hand movements with the song.

Slow down! One complaint I have about a lot of children’s songs you can buy online or listen to on YouTube is that they are sung too fast. So fast that children and even adults can’t keep up. You miss out on a lot of the benefits of singing. Slow down when you are singing with your child and look for slower songs, or play them at a slower speed.

Use Gestures! Gestures are great for a few reasons: they engage active toddlers, reinforce learning of vocabulary, and for toddlers who aren’t yet speaking, they can gesture to follow along with the music.

Be Aware of Sensitivity to Sounds Remember that to some children who have sensory processing differences, such as some of our children on the autism spectrum,  may not like the variation in pitch that happens when we sing. So what can we do instead? Laura Mize, a pediatric speech-language pathologist whose podcast and materials got me through my first few years as a new clinician, recommends chanting. And I have heard this same recommendation from occupational therapists I know who work on sensory processing.

Please share your favorite songs below as well as your experience with bringing in the children’s songs to boost language and speech development. Also, watch in my future online store for a manual I’ll be publishing with popular children’s songs in English and Spanish that includes a variety of strategies for targeting varies goals in speech and language.

When my Child Responds in English

A speech therapist working with a bilingual family recently reached out to ask what advice to give the family on how to support the goals they have for their bilingual child’s language development. Often their child is asking for or responding to questions in English rather than in the home language. The parents want to know how to respond to this, with the goal in mind being that child becomes bilingual.

This is a question I get from parents and a question I’ve asked myself at times too. What do we do when a child responds in the majority language  rather than responding in the home language? Parents who are trying to teach their child Spanish while living in the U.S. may become frustrated as they see the majority language taking over their child’s vocabulary. Do we withhold what the child has asked for until she speaks in the home language? Do we pretend not to understand? Do we throw our hands up and no longer make any demands because sooner or later, we’re going to get worn out by what seems like an uphill battle to teach the home language? Before responding to this, there are a few things that I should clarify about the process of dual language learning (when you learn two languages at the same time). This takes undue pressure (and more importantly blame) off of yourself and your child.

Children Like to Be Efficient

Children don’t always have the same words in their expressive vocabulary in both languages (Nicoladis, E., & Genesee, F. (1997a). For example, they will learn and use words in certain situations, say, learning to talk about home routines such as clothes, cleaning, and bedtime in the home language but may have learn the names of some favorite  foods in English while at preschool. They may realize that learning the word “apple” will get them that apple whether they’re in the their Chinese speaking home or at their English speaking preschool.  If they are able to get away with knowing that word in only one language, then that is what they will do. Just like adults, children are all about efficiency and won’t necessarily learn the meaning of a word in both languages.  So, don’t feel frustrated if you see that your child resists learning to say apple in both Chinese and English. This is a natural part of language development.

Children Respond Better to Less Pressure

Children usually feel less pressure when learning two languages than adults who are learning two languages would because the demands are less. However, if we do place a lot of pressure on a child to learn and respond in the home language, this can increase what’s called an affective filter which basically means that there’s more stress or anxiety around language learning.  The natural learning process for children is more carefree when learning short phrases such as, “Big car!” “Go park!” Or, “I want ball.”  As adults, if we are asked for directions  or have to explain what we do for a living in another language we are just learning, we are much more likely to feel overwhelmed at formulating all of these thoughts, will break out into a sweat, and will probably resort to gestures or mimes. Thinking of such complex language for an adult is a challenge– and let’s not even mention the acrobatics our articulators (jaw, lips, tongue, mouth) have to go through to get the pronunciation even somewhat on target. Remember though that for a child who only has a few words, if we put a lot of pressure on what he is supposed to respond and how quickly he is supposed to respond, we can raise the anxiety around language use. So, start small and easy with children. Think of what motivates them to talk rather than having a lot of expectations of what will make them talk.

We Respond Better to Less Pressure

Although we want to encourage learning from a very early age, we can take some pressure off of ourselves by knowing that even if a child seems to favor the majority language more than the primary language, as long as they continue to have opportunities throughout their lives to learn and use the language, they can learn at later ages. I recently heard a speech-language therapist on a podcast who spoke about some of the worries she began to experience when her then preschool-age son, who was being exposed to  Spanish-English speaking was using a lot more English than Spanish. She persisted though in using Spanish in the home. When he was around five, they went to visit her family in Central America. She was amazed to see the amount of Spanish he was using to communicate with the extended family. She hadn’t even realized he’d retained so much. In addition,  there was a study done in 1978 by Snow & Hoefnagel-Hohl that assessed English speakers who were learning Dutch in Holland. They tested learners of different ages (preschool to adulthood) every four to five months. And the results after one year? They found that the age group that learned at the fastest rate on a variety of different language measures (vocabulary, grammar, syntax) were the adolescents! Children of all ages are capable of picking up a second language although consistent exposure at an earlier age will ensure not only clearer pronunciation but also more time to use, practice, and build upon their language.  Parents don’t have to feel desperate that if the child isn’t speaking quite as much in the home language as they would hope from a very early age that they have missed the boat. Being persistent and consistent will help though in ensuring your child has the best chance at becoming bilingual.

How to Encourage Use of the Home Language

I will give some basic guidelines according to what research and observation has demonstrated. Just remember that the personality of your child will also determine how well he may respond to some of these suggestions.

Keep it Playful

By this, I mean, let’s try to make  using the home language meaningful, enjoyable and practical. We won’t get too far by pretending we don’t understand the child who speaks to us  in English rather than French when the child knows quite well that we do actually understand every word he is saying. But, we may get a response if we playfully pretend we don’t understand. For instance, if you withhold an item, say when your child is requesting an orange. You don’t immediately get the orange for him as you’re hoping he’ll ask for it in French rather than English.   If he politely requested the orange and you say, “tell me in French and then I’ll give it to you,”  he may become a little resentful about being asked to make this same request again in French. Or he may not. A lot depends on his personality, but if you see that he’s becoming frustrated, rather than let him feel irritated that he’s being asked to speak in French, try to create an interaction that is more playful.  If you can bring yourself to act silly, using a funny voice, (this is a hit especially with the two to four year old crowd), saying something in your home language, such as, “I can’t hear you?  I only understand French right now” or, “Did you just ask for an orange or for a pet elephant?”  The key though is that it needs to be done in a lighthearted way. If your child insists on continuing to request this item in English, then repeat what your child has requested but in your home language, saying, “Oh, you would like an orange.”  This type of modeling has been recommended by studies on dual language learners going through the Head Start as well as recommendations on Colorin Colorado. I love their website and they have great recommendations for families and therapists in English and Spanish.  Your child may often switch back and forth between the home language and English, and this is a natural part of dual language development for young children. The recommendations are to repeat back to your child what he has said, in a complete sentence in the home language. If your child says, “Quiero cookie” you can repeat back, “Quiero una galleta.” This way you are modeling how the complete sentence would be spoken. One quick note: make sure you are speaking in sentences that your child can understand. You can keep them short and grammatically correct.

T.V., Music, and Superheroes

I am not a big fan of promoting electronics for learning, especially for little ones, because it is very passive learning, and in a study by Kuhl (2004) on early language acquisition there has been no benefit in language growth when a toddler to preschool age child is given electronics such as the TV, videos on YouTube, etc. especially if the child was left alone to watch the content without interaction from anyone else. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers learn language from interaction with people.  That being said, if you use T.V., music, and superheroes in a strategic way, you can stir your child’s interest in the primary language and cultural interests that are part of the language. There’s a cartoon you can find on YouTube that is in Russian called Masha and the Bear. Many of the Spanish speaking children I see love this cartoon. But it’s in Russian!  And they watch it in Russian. So, if we can get non-Russian speaking children interested in this cartoon, there may be a chance of finding a fun children’s show in your home language that can get her interest. The trick is to not leave your child in front of the I-phone watching the show, but to watch it together, pausing and commenting frequently on what you’re seeing. Your child might protest at first. I usually see if you start slowly and make the interaction fun, such as having some toys where you act out what you’ve just seen, or sing along one of the songs together, that your child might respond well. Also, and this is a personal opinion, showing that the home language is spoken outside of your home might help a child who is resisting learning the home language because of the pressure to assimilate and learn the majority language. If you find you can’t keep the TV watching interactive, then it may be best to leave the electronics aside for now.

Go Beyond Your Household

Your child can benefit tremendously from opportunities outside your home to hear and practice your home language. If you can find opportunities, such as Story Time at the library, attending church services in your native language, or finding a bilingual preschool program, even if it’s just a few hours, a few times a week. In one study of children attending a bilingual preschool, the children showed language gains in their home language and the majority language. They did not lose the first language but they continued to develop their language skills in both languages (Winsler et al, 1999).  If your child sees that there are more places and opportunities to use the language, they may be motivated to persist at learning.

Language learning is a bit of a math equation. Children need input in the language (hear the language) and output in the language (speaking the language) in order to be bilingual. And the magic ingredient is motivation. If you can find what motivates your child to learn the language, whether it’s his love of children’s songs in Spanish or being able to talk with the aunts and uncles on Skype every week, then you’ll have a greater chance that he’ll be bilingual for life. If you would like more reading material, I highly recommend the book, The Bilingual Edge by Drs. Kendall King, and Alison Mackey.

For any of you that have had success with your child becoming bilingual in a country with only one majority language, please leave your comments, suggestions, or observations below. Thank you!

Is My Bilingual Child’s Language On Track?

When you begin to ask if your baby’s language is on target, we speech therapists, ST’s, ask you to compare your child’s speech and language to common communication milestones to see if your child has met them. Although each child is different in how soon they begin to use words or speak in short phrases, we see that the majority of children reach communication milestones, like their first words, at the same age, give or take a few months. This is helpful for parents to know as lack of reaching developmental milestones can be a signal that your child may need support in some way to help their language grow and develop. Although your child may catch up on his own, there are still many important reasons to look further into why he isn’t reaching his milestones. There can be many causes for this and even something as common as recurrent ear infections could be impacting your child’s communication development.  Children with chronic ear infections, for example, are at a higher risk for late talking because they cannot hear and distinguish the subtle speech sounds around them. So, although you might read on a parenting blog that there’s no need to worry about your child’s language development because, hey, look at Einstein (who was said did not begin to speak until age four), it is still very much worth it to investigate your child’s language development a little further if you see reasons for concern.

For children who are bilingual or even trilingual, there is a common myth out there that speaking multiple languages will cause your child to reach developmental milestones at a much later age. I’ve worked with professionals in education and even they are susceptible to the idea that learning two languages means not meeting those developmental milestones. I have overheard comments about how a grandchild will probably start speaking later than expected because he’s learning English and Spanish or that it’s expected that the niece should still be speaking unclearly at age five because she’s learning English and Russian simultaneously. This isn’t true. So, these myths persist even among those who work in education. When it comes down to it, bilingual children reach milestones at roughly the same age as their monolingual peers. We expect some variation yes, but overall, they are hitting those milestones at the same age.

Here’s what we do know about language and speech development for babies and toddlers who are bilingual and are exposed to both languages from birth. Remember, the later given age in the age range is what 90% of multilingual children are able to do at this age, not what the average child can do.

 

Social Communication: How your baby interacts with you, both with and without word

6-9 months

 

Joint Attention: The definition of joint attention is when your child is able to share her interest in another object, such as a dog walking by or a bus driving down the street, with you. The child looks between you and the object and shares an emotion with you about how exciting it is to see this object or animal.

 

9-12 months

 

Gestures: This could include pointing at what your child wants, lifting her arms to mean she wants to be picked up, or using beginning baby sign language, such as putting her hands together to signal “more”

 

12-15 months

 

Follows Simple Directions: At this age, a baby can follow simple directions, such as “give me the ball”, or “come here” or, “let’s pat the cat gently.”  Of course your baby may not always follow these directions, especially if she’s not so inclined to at the moment, but for the most part, she can understand and follow through on routine directions. Perhaps some directions she follows in one language and others in a different language. This all depends on how much she’s being spoken to in each language.

 

18 months

 

Pretend Play

 

At this age, a child can begin to use his imagination in play. Play is hugely important in development because it gives us a peek into how your child can use his observations about the world around him and imagination and carry those out in play. Pretend play at this age usually consists of feeding a doll or playing with small toy animals that “moo” and “baa” at each other as they walk around the living room floor.

 

Vocabulary Development

 

12 months

 

First words, usually consisting of “mama” and “dada” and perhaps the pet cat.

 

15 months

 

At least six to eight total words, meaning maybe your child has four words in English and two in Arabic.

 

18-20 months

 

A vocabulary of 20 to 50 words, again, we are looking at combining the total amount of words your has in all of the languages they are exposed to.

 

24 months

 

Combines two words such as mommy apple! Or your child may be code-switching saying Mommy manzana! This is very normal for bilingual children.

 

If your child is bilingual and not meeting these milestones, talk with your pediatrician about a referral to see a speech-language therapist. You can also look on https://www.asha.org/findpro/ for help in finding  an ST in your area.

Feel free to email me or comment below with any questions or suggestions on information you’d like on bilingual language development.

 

This information was taken from the following sources:

 

Prath, Scott. Red Flags for Speech-Language Impairment in Bilingual Children: Differentiate disability from disorder by understanding common developmental milestones. The ASHA Leader, November 2016, Vol. 21, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.21112016.32

 

Patterson, Janet. Expressive Vocabulary Development and Word Combinations of Spanish-English Bilingual Toddlers.  American Journal of Speech Language Pathology. November 1998, Vol. 7, 46-56. doi:10.1044/1058-0360.0704.46