Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Vocalizing (0 – 3 Months) – Communication Beginsclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Carrie Gotzke and Heather Sample Gosse, University of Alberta

Vocalizing begins with the first cry. Caregivers begin the process of communication by responding to their baby’s vocalizations. When caregivers respond consistently to a baby’s cries, the baby learns the turn-taking pattern that is critically important to successful communication. Continued successful communication development depends both on the ability of the babies to send messages clearly and the ability of their caregivers to understand those messages. Vocal skills develop in the context of interaction with others. For more information, please refer to Interacting 0 – 3 Months.

Oral Control - The Foundation for Vocalizing

Babies are born with numerous reflexes. The reflex of most interest for speech development is the rhythmic suck-swallow pattern, which is in fact established about three months before birth. At birth, sucking is primarily accomplished by up-and-down jaw action. Max was observed to move his tiny jaw straight up and down when sucking. Within a few weeks, as muscle control developed, Max started to add some side-to-side jaw movement into his sucking pattern. Back-and-forth jaw movement appeared at about one month.

As early as two months, babies develop distinct sucking behaviors – one set of behaviors to gain nutrition through breast or bottle and another set of sucking behaviors that serve no nutritional purpose – sucking on fingers and objects. Max’s mom quickly realized by the way he sucked his fingers and objects that he realized that they didn’t satisfy his hunger. He was mouthing them to explore them or to comfort himself. Both nutritional and non-nutritional sucking behaviors help infants develop more control of the muscles used to produce speech.

By two months of age, babies are stronger and mouth movements are more distinct. Avery’s mother observes that Avery’s mouth movements have become more defined and have a more deliberate look to them. Earlier, her mouth movements seemed “soft” and imprecise. She is getting stronger by the day!

Crying – The Earliest Communication

Crying serves a critical function for babies – it expresses their needs. When caregivers respond to their cries, babies learn that they can change or control the environment. They learn that what they do has meaning when their signals lead to predictable responses from their caregivers.

Crying also helps babies get used to feeling air flow across their vocal folds. Since speech sounds begin at the level of the larynx or voice box, this early stimulation is important. Crying also helps babies develop breathing patterns that will support speech later.

Four basic cries have been identified within the first month. The first cry heard is the birth cry, consisting of two gasps following by a wail that last for one second, with a flat, falling tone. Later three additional cries can be differentiated: the basic cry, the pain cry, and the temper cry. The basic or hunger cry consists of a rhythmic pattern of loud crying, silence, whistling inhalation, and rest. During the rest, the baby may be seen to make sucking movements. The pain cry, a loud, shrill cry, consists of one long cry followed by a long breath-holding silence and a series of short whimpers. Frequently, this cry is accompanied by tense facial muscles, frowns, and clenched fists. Finally, a temper or anger cry is very loud and babies sound exasperated because they let out a lot of air in this type of cry.

By the end of the first month, mothers or primary caregivers can often identify the reason for a cry by its sound pattern. Caregivers respond in specific ways to different cries. You will likely find that you are able to guess quite well what your baby needs by the sound of his or her cry. For example, Avery’s mother associates a certain type of cry with Avery needing her diaper changed (Insert Sound Clip Avery Cry March 21). Avery’s mom has also noticed that when Avery is sick, her cry sounds weak and is high-pitched. Over time, Avery is learning that how she cries and how her mom responds are related. This type of learning takes time.

First Vocalizations

Baby vocalizations are initially limited to reflexive sounds related to fussing, feeding, and even breathing. But by the second month, your baby will likely be producing more speech-like vocalizations. Cooing, gooing and laughter follow soon after.

Reflexive Sounds

From birth to two months, the majority of baby vocalizations are reflex reactions to discomfort – crying and fussing - and sounds related to feeding and breathing - coughing, burping, swallowing, and sneezing.

Babies are limited in the sounds that they can produce by their body structures. Their mouths are small and almost totally filled by the tongue. As well, their larynx or voice boxes are high in the neck. As they grow, they become able to produce a greater variety of sounds.

Speech-Like Vocalizations

In the first month of life, noncrying sounds may accompany feeding or be produced in response to smiling or talking by adults. These sounds are brief and likely produced accidentally by chance movements of the vocal folds. They sound the way they do because babies do not open their mouths as much as adults do and cannot direct the position of their tongues. Avery’s mom has heard her making tiny squeaks and low grunting types of sounds at feeding time. (Insert Sound Clip Avery Feb 10-2).

Cooing and Gooing

Often in the second and third months of life, babies begin to make some comfort-state vocalizations, often called cooing or gooing sounds. These sounds seem to be made in the back of the mouth and may seem to be almost accidental at first. When babies are on their back, their tongue naturally lies back against the soft part of the roof of their mouths. This is exactly where adults make “k” and “g”sounds. As babies begin to make sounds, suddenly a “k” or “g” sound emerges and the result is a sound that is highly similar to “coo” or “goo.” When this happened to Max he soon learned, as most babies do, that he could make these sounds willfully. He began to use the sounds to show simple pleasure at the sight of his mom – a very big moment in their relationship! Max’s mom found that she could encourage these cooing sounds by moving toys about and speaking to Max. Keep in mind that babies coo when they are not upset. Cooing develops alongside social smiling. Good news - the amounts of time spent in crying and cooing are inversely related: as cooing increases, crying decreases. Avery’s mom noticed that right way – soon after Avery began to coo, she was crying less and cooing more. What a relief!

Sample Gosse, H., & Gotzke, C. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Vocalizing 0 - 3 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development