The ‘Magic’ of Parent-Child Interactions


Children begin learning the building blocks for language development before their first birthday. From 5-6 months of age, children begin to make sounds such as coos (e.g. “oo-oo” “eee”) and babble (e.g. “baba” “badabda”). When a parent responds vocally to their child’s sounds, the infant is twice as likely to re-vocalise. This leads to the infant making more and more noises, and the beginnings of back and forth communication is born!

Why are back and forth interactions so important?

The more children participate in back and forth interactions, the more the language centres of the brain are stimulated and the greater the impact on their language skills. If children don’t engage in a back and forth interaction, they won’t learn how to start one themselves. Or how take a turn in an interaction, clarify messages, practice using words or learn to ask questions.  So, while exposing children to lots of words is important; participating in interactions with as many turns as possible is more important.

Parent- child interactions strategies:

Opportunities for interactions occur throughout the day, such as eating breakfast, having a bath or playing a favourite game. This means that you, a parent, is in the best position to support these interactions.  Not only are you with your child more than anyone else, you also understand their interests and intentions the best.

The Hanen Centre has produced a range of strategies to assist parents develop their child’s communication skills.  These strategies include:

OWL™ (Observe, wait and Listen™)

  • Observe what your child is interested in. Pay attention to the things they look at, point to, the way the play with objects, where they walk etc.
  • Wait for your child to make an action or sound. Stop talking and lean in towards them. Look at your child as if you are waiting expectantly.
  • Listen closely to any small actions, sounds or words the child makes. Respond immediately to what you have observed or heard by saying a word back or making an action.
  • Observe, Wait and Listen again! If your child takes another turn on the same topic, you have established a back and forth interaction! Keep it going for as many turns as possible by using more strategies below;

 Follow Your Child’s Lead

Once you have observed, waited and listened to your child, you will know what they are interested in that moment. Now it’s time to follow their lead by joining in their chosen activity.  Don’t try to get your child to “play in a specific way”, just copy what they do to attract their attention and help continue the interaction. Find ways to participate in the game without taking over, e.g. handing them a block.

Add Language to the interaction

Adding language to what your child is interested in helps build their understanding of the world and helps them to use new words. It also encourages the interaction to continue.

  • Imitate repeat any actions or words your child has just used.
  • Interpret- When children aren’t using any words to communicate, it can be helpful for you to put into words what your child is trying to tell you with actions e.g. “oh no, it fell down!”
  • Comment- Make simple comments about what is happening e.g. “you’re building a tall tower!”
  • Expand- Add a few words to what your child has said to make the message more complete e.g. “doggy run” → “yes, the doggy is running away”.
  • Ask questions that keep the interaction going- Ask questions your child is able to answer, which are directly related to what is happening in the interaction. Simple choice questions such as “do you want the car or truck?” Or a Yes/ No question “more playdoough?”. This is particularly helpful for children with minimal expressive language. For every question you ask, match it with 3 comments.

The bottom line

Research has shown that parent- child interactions which incorporate these strategies lead to better language outcomes for children. Children are observed to initiate communication more frequently and respond more appropriately to communication. They imitate new words which expands their vocabulary, combine more words into phrases and increase their receptive language (understanding).

It’s the magic of parent-child interactions which make all the difference to the child’s language. If you would like some support developing better interactions, contact us.

By Lisa Sawyer

Speech Pathologist

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