By: Danielle Maglinte, MAT, MS, CCC-SLP
Young children go through many developmental stages before they begin talking. One of the first stages of development is shared attention. In a baby, shared attention looks like the baby turning her head toward mom when she hears mom’s voice or a baby looking into dad’s eyes when dad talks to the baby. As children get a little older, shared attention looks like mom holding up a toy, the child looking at the toy, then looking back at mom and smiling. The next step in developing shared attention is dad looking at or pointing to a toy, the child looks where dad looks or points, then he looks back to dad. These steps towards developing shared attention typically happen within the first 12 months of a child’s life.
When a young child reaches a stage of shared attention where they can follow a caregiver’s point and they can shift their gaze between the caregiver and the object, they start to develop back-and-forth communication. At first, this looks like a child reaching for an object to tell the caregiver “I want that.”
As back-and-forth communication with gestures continues to develop, the child starts to vocalize. In the beginning, these vocalizations are mostly babbling. As parents talk back when the child babbles, these vocalizations turn into jargon where a child sounds like they are speaking in sentences but not actually saying words. Some parents comment that it sounds like the child is speaking in another language. Over time, the child’s vocalizations are shaped into short, simple words, such as mama, dada, and baba for bottle. Children with speech delays often demonstrate limited shared attention. Working to develop strong shared attention will help a child learning to communicate.
One challenge for some children with speech delays is that they need to maintain a calm, regulated state so that they are available for interactions and can share attention with another person. Read more about self-regulation from OT Maureen here.
If a child is focused on seeking sensory input, they may not have the ability to focus on social interactions, developing shared attention and speech with caregivers. Occupational therapy can help figure out activities and ways we can include these activities in everyday life so that a child can remain in a calm, regulated state so that she is available for social interactions. This may look like a child with limited eye contact running away and looking back to see if you are chasing him or a child who is quiet asking for “more” when you stop pushing the swing.
When a child stays regulated for longer periods of time, she will be available for interactions so that she can continue to develop strong shared attention, and move on to using gestures and speech to communicate. By working together, speech-language therapists and occupational therapists can help a family find activities, such as climbing, playing chase, swinging, and swimming or others that help a child with speech delays stay regulated and available to develop shared attention and communication skills.
To learn more about speech-language and multi-discipline therapy at Easterseals DuPage & Fox Valley visit: http://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/medical-rehabilitation/speech-language-therapy.html.