Developing Speech and Language in Children: Response Time to Babbling is Critical

As children bridge from babbling to first words, their primary form of support comes from adults using spoken models of words and sentences. In the 2009 book release of NurtureShock, authors PO Bronson & Ashley Merryman remind parents about the positive impact that spoken models have on a child’s language development. Similarly, therapists have been encouraging parents to boost a child’s exposure to vocabulary through the use of  “scripts” (talking out loud about current events), object labeling, and varying of sentence combinations. For parents that have been wondering what else can be done to support vocabulary development, this book shares how a parent’s RESPONSE TIME to a child’s babbling also matters.

What is Response Time

When a child vocalizes a sound, makes a communication act (such as eye gaze), or explores an item, an adult has a short moment of time to respond while the child is still engaged. Parents can respond with spoken words, touch, and/or an action. For example, when a child reaches for a toy, a parent can label the toy and bring it closer (“here comes tiger”). Or when a child looks at and babbles toward a food item, the parent can touch the child’s arm and talk about the food (“you’re eating cherries”).


Results of Response Time

When a parent responds within seconds to a child’s vocalization or exploration, a child learn’s that sounds from his/her mouth are meaningful. Secondly, the child learns to make associations with the object in focus and adult’s spoken word.


How Parents Can Use Response Time

Parents should respond rapidly and frequently to a child’s gaze, reach, vocalization, or exploration. Parents can model vocabulary at a single word or sentence length, and additionally provide a touch or object movement. Parents can vary enthusiasm in stretching words, highlighting pitch across a sentence, and varying the touch (tap, tickle, kiss) or movement (bounce toy, bring toy closer).

One suggestion for starting this technique at home, includes setting aside a 10-15 minute play time with your child in which you are focused on rapidly responding. The child can lead as you label what the child is naturally focused on. Pay close attention for the use of newly developed sounds, and praise new sounds with more enthusiastic responses. Since mistakes can occur if you label what the child is not looking at or miss new sounds to praise, it may be more beneficial  for you to use this technique during a focused play period, rather than spreading it across your day when you start out.

Up to 15 months of age, it can be beneficial for you to move/shake objects you are labeling in a sing-song pattern or in rhythm with the sounds/words you are modeling. The action can keep a child’s attention and provide a multi-sensory experience for object labeling. Lastly, parents should remember to vary sentence combinations (e.g., here comes tiger, tiger is coming, he’s coming for you) in repetitive play as this will also expose children to a variety of grammar forms.


You can explore more about Response Time in NurtureShock” New Thinking About Children, 2009.


Written by Speech-Language Pathologist, Rachel Collins