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Talking to your child

5-minute read

By the time your child has entered their pre-school years, you’ll have developed your own style of communicating with each other. Your family will also share many behaviours, including the language you use and way you use it.

All children, no matter how unique, benefit from open and responsive communication which supports their sense of security.

When should my child speak clearly?

As children develop, they become more skilful at pronouncing words. It’s important for preschool children to say words clearly enough for other people — not just their family — to understand.

Some children lisp when they speak and struggle with pronouncing sibilant sounds — for example, words which contain "s" and "c". Stuttering is fairly common in the preschool years and although most children mature out of early speech problems, it’s difficult to predict which children will.

Early assessment and support for speech problems from a speech pathologist can make a significant difference to a child’s confidence and communication.

How do I communicate with my child?

It’s important that you express openness and interest in what your child is saying.

It can also help to:

  • be involved in their games if they want you to take part
  • be respectful — sometimes they’ll just want to be quiet and not as chatty
  • be open to giving them your full attention when you can
  • make some time each day just to enjoy each other — reading, playing games and going for a walk are all great opportunities to talk
  • observe your child’s body language when they’re communicating — this will give you extra insights into what they’re trying to express

Language and speech development

Language and speech development

Learn how you can help your child to talk and develop their language and speech skills.

How can I support my 4- to 5-year-old’s speech and language development?

You can support your child’s speech and language development by giving them opportunities and time to practise. Children learn to talk by spending many hours speaking and listening. Learning new skills takes time and gentle correction where it’s needed.

10 ways to develop good communication

Remember, there is no place for shame or criticism when children mispronounce a word or get it wrong.

  1. Think about your own language and communication style. If you’re naturally a quieter and reflective person and your child is a talker, there could be challenges in the ways you communicate. Look for opportunities where conversations are natural and feel comfortable for you both.
  2. Ask your child questions about how their day has been or what they think or feel about something. When possible, let them initiate conversations. Involve them as much as possible in family discussions and respect their input.
  3. Give positive feedback and let them know that their ideas are valuable. Encourage older siblings to give the younger ones time to talk, instead of speaking over them.
  4. Answer your child’s questions in a simple, age-appropriate way. Young children have a threshold for how long they can actively listen. Be clear when you talk with them.
  5. Talk about feelings and name their emotions — for example, you can say: "You look like you’re feeling sad". It’s valuable for children to learn that it’s okay to feel negative emotions and that they are safe to express what’s worrying them.
  6. Keep household distractions to a minimum if possible. Televisions, screens and phones all compete for our attention. Children benefit from feeling that they are the focus of their parent’s attention.
  7. Give praise where it’s warranted and for trying. Ignore what doesn’t matter and don’t view your child’s early attempts at talking as a snapshot of how they’ll always communicate.
  8. Expect pretend words and “poo”, “wee” and “bum” references — these are normal.
  9. Give yourself permission not to always feel you need to reply to your child. Active listening and communication can be tiring.
  10. Let go of your inner critic and sing, dance, read and have fun with your child. Humans communicate in all sorts of ways.

How do I know my child’s speech and language development is on track?

By the time your child reaches 4-5 years, look for them to:

  • have around 1,500 words in their vocabulary
  • be able to say their name and address
  • use sentences with four or more words
  • identify primary colours and some shapes
  • have clear speech, though they may still be a little less clear when pronouncing "th", "z", "r", "s" and "v"
  • mix up what is real and what is make-believe — fantasy is a big part of a young child’s life.

When should I get help?

See your GP or other healthcare professional if you any doubts about your child’s speech or language development.

Early assessment and intervention, if needed, can make a big difference.

Also seek help if:

  • your child’s speech and language development slows down or regresses
  • they become very quiet or withdrawn
  • have frequent colds or ear infections — speech and language development can be impacted by hearing loss.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2021

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