A child’s first words are a huge milestone. At first, amongst the babble that emerges from a baby, something resembling a word occasionally emerges, like “da” or “yeah”. Yet, you cannot be quite sure if was merely accidental. Perhaps, you think, she is also inadvertently saying the occasional coherent word of Swahili or Russian, as she toddles around chatting amiably to herself.
Then, some consistency begins to develop, usually around key words expressing a need for something, like “mama”, “dada” or “mook” – ie milk. Non-verbal communication, such as pointing becomes supplemented by the word “dah”. Likewise, the universal toddler sign language for “pick me up and cuddle me” – being to arms outstretched upwards to their intended giant carrier – becomes supplemented by “up!”. Yet, long before these first words emerge, it’s already clear that the baby understands many words. She could be asked, “do you want some raisins?” which would be greeted with enthusiastic nodding. The older kids would teach her names, by asking her where someone was, and as she turned triumphantly to point at the right person with a beaming smile, they all cheered.
The older kids also take great delight in teaching their baby sister to talk. A regular game for the older kids is to ask her to say various names and words. They ask her to say someone’s name, or words like “apple” or “juice”, and delight in her cute mispronunciations. Soon, for those conversant with her very particular iterations of words, she is now able to ask for lots of things. She can tell you if something is sore, and can ask where someone is. This was a huge de-stressor for her, as before if something was amiss, the only thing she could do was cry and hope we figured it out. Now she can state the issue, and can be given an explanation.
When her older brother was in hospital recently, my wife spent a number of nights staying with him. When waking in the middle of the night, the baby would always enquire as to her whereabouts, by saying, “Mammy?” I could then explain, “Mammy is in hospital and will come back later, brrm brrm in the car, and then she will give you a cuddle”. Then, she would nod calmly, satisfied as to the explanation given. In the past, she would just have felt upset at her mother’s absence and would have cried. That would have been met with various unnecessary attempts to resolve the crying, such as changing nappies or offering milk – which might have only exacerbated matters.
Soon, assertive words like “no!” are also learned – most commonly used to express a desire not to go to bed, or not to eat something healthy. Yet this word gives small children a sense of their own rights and autonomy, and an ability to set limits if, say, an older sibling wants to play a game that they find too much. Soon after comes the word “mine!” which gives them an idea of the things they can lay claim to, and a way to prevent other kids taking their toys away. Yet these two words have also become a game for our one year old, who jokingly attempts to claim things she knows are not hers, such as my phone, wallet or glasses, which she theatrically clutches to her chest and laughingly says “mine!”
It’s amazing to see a sense of humour developing in a baby. At first, laugh along if someone makes a joke at the dinner table – even though they don’t understand the joke, they do pick up on the mood, and enthusiastically laugh along, looking at everyone in turn to share in the fun. Before long, they begin to learn what is funny. When the older children do something slapstick to make her laugh, like falling over in a silly fashion, she might do her own take on it, to be greeted by laughter all round.
As more words come, toddlers begin express their feelings and desires in more complex ways. For example, this morning at 5 am, our one year old very eloquently expressed her desire to get up, and then put on her wellies, to have her hair put up, and to have a banana, while ambling around the kitchen singing, with the lights flashing in the soles of her pink wellies. I, meanwhile, blearily expressed a desire for a strong coffee.