Heaven knows it’s challenging enough to keep track of everything as your baby grows. Is development occurring as fast as it should be? What milestones are the most important? Are my child’s peers progressing faster? Well, take a deep belly breath in and out — ahhhh... — you’re already doing great and we can come up with a plan together.
As a pediatric speech-language pathologist (SLP), I’ll highlight the important aspects of childhood speech imitation. Imitation with infants has shown to promote higher levels of attention, smiling, and approach behaviors (1), as well as identify possible red flags along the way. So, whether you’re a parent or caretaker that suspects an imitation insufficiency or you simply want to take advantage of the best techniques to promote robust growth and development, this will help.
What is Imitation in Child Development?
Imitating is the growth and development skill of mirroring, repeating, and practicing. It is an important place to start with childhood speech development, and one thing you don’t want to miss. In short, it’s how we learn before we know what learning even is.
How early imitation occurs is debated. Generally, most children begin vocalizing around 3-6 months, try imitating speech sounds by 12 months, and imitate simple actions around 18 months. (2) This can be used as a general rubric.
You’ll notice that imitation can be verbal (imitating sounds) or non-verbal (imitating actions). Both are important! And using them together is the best way to meet a little one precisely in the right spot.
Why Speech Imitation is Important in Language Development?
Observing and interacting with the world is amind expanding, wild ride for children (it's easy to forget this as adults). Watching you, listening to you, playing with you all contribute to what’s known as the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development. (3) During birth to around two years, children have one job: take information in through the five senses and experiment outward through physical motions.
Well, imitation is the fuel that supercharges this stage! Your parental instinct toward a special connection with your little is real — this stage is proof of it — and imitation has shown to increase capacity in attention, smiling, and engagement. (1)
The flip side is the connection between lack of imitation and delay in language development. (4) This can help a parent or caretaker spot a potential challenge and provides the opportunity to discuss your special situation with a medical professional.
How Children Improve Imitation Skills
Fun is important because at this stage learning is inseparable from fun and play. Easy enough: put on your acting caps, get some props, and — Violà! — you’ve set the stage for a perfect learning environment.
Imitation starts with nonverbal interactions. This goes without saying for children under six months, but is especially helpful if you have already noticed speech challenges over six months.
Eye contact is important. Is your child making it?
Begin with fun games like peekaboo, waving, and giving high fives. The goal is for the action to be imitated back to you, paying special attention to eye contact.
What if my child won’t imitate me?
There are a couple things you can do if your child won’t imitate you. The first thing to try is using an interesting object. A bright colored or extra soft toy is great to try while waving or high fiving. You can also try using props during peekaboo, like using a fun blanket or wearing a silly hat.
If that doesn’t work, the next thing to try is imitating your child. Movements, expressions, and noises can all be imitated right back. This method teaches imitation through imitation! Tickling can work, too, since it can elicit a physical response, focus attention, and give you an opportunity to directly follow with imitating back.
Once moving on to verbal imitation, there are all sorts of tools to access. Remember to focus on doing your best to include sensory inputs (sight, sounds, touch) with active outputs (movements, expressions, actions).
Start with basic sounds. Use fun sounds like “mmmmmh” while pretending to eat. Or a loud “muah!” while blowing or giving a kiss.
Exclamatory words like oops, uh-oh, or “weeee” are great to move on to next. It is important to associate these noises with a motion or active scenario. Exclaim “uh-oh!” while dropping a toy to the floor, and don’t forget to put your hands up around your face and widen your eyes to really accent the scenario.
Using animal noises is great because you can associate the noise with a visual, like a toy or picture. Take a toy sheep and “baaaaahhhh.” The sheep could also drink water or munch food noisily, adding to the fun.
Songs and Music
Songs and music are another great tool to use. Remember to associate physical movements and expressions to the lyrics. For instance, use a “running” motion during “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” or looking up dramatically toward the sky during “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
Mix and Match
Better yet, mix and match as needed! Use a little teapot prop, hand gesture movement, and “sip tea” from a tea cup all while singing “I’m a Little Teapot.” As you can see, the sky's the limit, and fun is the name of the game. You never know which action or noise your little one will fancy!
Where to Go from Here?
Equipping yourself with the knowledge on what to look for is half the battle. No two children follow the exact same path, but parents can use this as a means of gauging what to be aware of. It will only serve to bring you and your little closer together!
Sometimes a lack of imitation can point to a language or speech challenge. The nuanced nature of development makes it difficult to know, there are numerous factors at play, and time is of the essence. If this is your scenario, the next step is to team up with a trained speech-language pathologist for a consultation. Taking a look at your child’s unique situation can provide the exact next steps for healthy growth and development.
- Sauciuc, Gabriela-Alina, et al. “Imitation Recognition and Its Prosocial Effects in 6-Month Old Infants.” PloS One, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 May 2020, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32433668/.
- “Language Development: Speech Milestones for Babies.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 25 Mar. 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/language-development/art-20045163.
- “Piaget's Theory.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/topic/human-behavior/Piagets-theory#ref390895.
Zambrana, Imac M, et al. “Action Imitation at 1½ Years Is Better than Pointing Gesture in PREDICTING Late Development of Language Production at 3 Years of Age.” Child Development, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 Oct. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3572301/.