Time to Talk

Clare Sheridan highlights the power of parent talk.

Children with hearing loss are hearing from an earlier age than ever before. And the hearing devices they receive are the best ever available. Why, then, is learning to listen and talk still difficult? In this article, Clare Sheridan, Consumer Education Manager at Cochlear, explains the power of talking for parents whose children hear with an implantable hearing device.

Hearing implants are incredible technology, but they are not the complete answer. They are merely a pathway to allow your child to access the essential language environment they need for cognitive development.

Cochlear implant surgeon and author, Dr Dana Suskind, summarises this, saying “The miraculous power of parent talk … is the same, whether a child is born hearing or has acquired hearing via a cochlear implant. Without that language environment, the ability to hear is a wasted gift.”

Understanding the value of parent-child conversations is key to success, since those with realistic expectations are motivated to approach rehab actively, engaging full family support. Small efforts day after day are what build success.

The auditory system begins to function within the womb before birth. By the time baby arrives, he or she already has a range of auditory experience. In the first days, weeks and months of life, there is huge development in speech and language. So, even with new-born screening and early intervention, there is a gap between chronological age and hearing age.

Some factors that influence progress towards closing that gap are beyond control, but others can be influenced. For example, how much the hearing device is used, how much speech a child is engaged in and the quality of listening conditions.

More is more

According to research, development of listening and spoken language requires 20,000 hours of interactional listening in the first five years. As infants and toddlers sleep so much, for a child reliant on hearing technology, this essentially means the technology turned on for every waking hour and plentiful parent-child conversations.

There is a direct correlation between the number of adult words a child hears each day and the number of child vocalisations and vocal turns and research does not suggest any point of word ‘saturation’. In other words, generally the more words a child hears in conversations, the more vocal he or she will be.

For that reason, if no other, parents should learn to create a talkative family environment. Another reason is that when we talk more, we tend to talk in different ways and to say more positive things. All parents use simple directives to get through the daily routine quickly and efficiently: “OK, Charlie, teeth brushed and into bed!”

But, when you talk more, things become more positive, richer and encouraging:

“Let’s get those teeth brushed, Charlie. Up, down, round and round. Are they clean yet? Let’s have a look. Wow! Super sparkly and shiny. What lovely white teeth you have. Now, how are you going to get to bed? Why don’t you jump like a bunny…”

Don’t forget to leave pauses so your child has time to listen, time to think and time to talk too.

According to Dr Suskind, more than 85% of words in a child’s vocabulary are words in their parents’ vocabulary and the difference this makes is astonishing. Children in the most talkative families hear three times as many words in their first four years compared to those in the least talkative families. That’s some 30 million more words they are hearing! As a result, their own vocabulary is increased tenfold.

The importance of interaction

More than simply the number of words a child hears, the interaction creates measurable changes in the brain and sets the stage for literacy skills in school. Taking time to respond to your child’s non-verbal communications encourages them to babble and then to vocalise. Here are some ideas for starting these valuable interactions.

  • Watch what your child is doing or paying attention to and talk about it. Start a conversation, aiming for a relaxed tennis-style rally back and forth between you and them. Even if your child isn’t talking yet, you can respond to their gestures and facial expressions.
    “I see you have put teddy’s boots on. What’s he doing today?”
  • Use books and storytelling to create an opportunity to share what is happening and to share more words than may be in your everyday conversations. After all, brains are built, not born, and by talking about different things in different and more elaborate ways, it all helps contribute to your child’s cognitive development.
  • Look through some family photos together. Tell stories about when you were young and ask your child what they remember from particular occasions.
    “Do you remember when you went pony riding on holiday?”
    “What do you like best when you visit granny?”

Tip: There are also some great apps available online to help you create stories as conversation starters that you can share with your child over and over again.

Choose your surroundings

It is a well-established fact that the ideal situation for listening is in quiet. For adults it is a little easier to spend time listening in quiet. For younger people, especially children and young adults, much more of their day is spent with background noise that is out of their control or in a speech in noise situation.

Consider how you may help with this. For example, turn the music off when you read to your child. Or set the washing machine to run during the night, or while your child is at school, so that the noise is not in the background when you chat over dinner.

Harness the power

As parents, you have already taken the step to give your child access to hearing. You also have the power to help their communication and cognitive development by ensuring they wear their hearing device and are engaged in as much listening and conversation as possible.

The Cochlear™ Nucleus® Smart App Hearing Tracker is a great tool to help you monitor how you are doing. Look for the days when there is more speech and ask yourself: “What did I do that made the difference? How can I make sure I keep doing more of that? Who else can I encourage to add conversation to my child’s day?”

More about the Cochlear Nucleus Smart App

More about the Cochlear Nucleus Smart App Hearing Tracker

Watch Dr Dana Suskind talk about the power of parent talk:

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Please seek advice from your health professional about treatments for hearing loss. Outcomes may vary, and your health professional will advise you about the factors which could affect your outcome. Always read the instructions for use. Not all products are available in all countries. Please contact your local Cochlear representative for product information.

Views expressed are those of the individual. Consult your health professional to determine if you are a candidate for Cochlear technology.

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