Chances are you want to provide a wonderful environment for your children to learn and grow. But life is busy. Your multiples (and maybe singletons too) need to be bathed, dressed, fed and nurtured. And when you’re not caring for your little ones, there’s housework, shopping, cooking, and laundry. Perhaps there’s a job too – and the resulting runs to the sitter and daycare.
Luckily, all children learn to talk. It’s something that comes naturally, right? Not always. Some children talk late. Some children need speech therapy. And all children need help from their parents to reach their highest potential.
Learning to Talk – What to Expect
Multiples acquire language just as single-born children do, however, sometimes they develop it at a somewhat slower pace. Even though multiples tend to make sounds and gestures early on to each other, they often say their first word (other than “mama” or “dada”) about a month later than most single born children.
Studies have shown that some multiple born children are prone to early speech and language difficulties and later literacy problems. Even if your children are developing speech and language skills normally, research tells us that between three and five years, twins may be six months behind their single-born age peers. The good news is that by age five, twins, who do have speech and language problems, differ very little from their single born age peers.*
To multiples, language is a way to bring closeness and intimacy with each other, and can often be very rewarding. In some cases, they appear to talk together using words and sentences that only the two of them can understand. Research has shown this “twin talk” is not a private invented language, but actually a persistent use of immature or incorrect speech patterns. Many children often create some words of their own, or use incorrect vocabulary, grammar, and syntax when they are learning to talk. Since multiples spend a lot of time together, and have a strong desire to communicate with each other, they listen to each other saying words incorrectly. Sometimes, these troublesome words grow more and more distorted and, as a result, the multiples are the only ones who are able to understand their communications.
Twin language is not a cause of language delay, but may be an indication that your child may have a difficult time learning to talk. A British study showed that approximately 50% of twins who have speech and language difficulties may use twin language. Only 11% of twins who are developing language on schedule use twin language. If your multiples are using “twin language” to communicate with each other, it is very important they are also developing the communication skills that are necessary to communicate effectively with others. Therefore, your multiples need to be understanding and expressing new words at least every few weeks and using these words to communicate with others.
Taking Steps to Avoid Delays
It has been documented that speech and language difficulties are more common in multiples than in single born children. However, this certainly does not mean that your multiples will have speech and language delays. Experts believe that sometimes these delays may be due to the social and biological factors listed below that can effect any child, born a multiple, or not. Language is learned by a baby watching the adult’s face, in particular the mouth move and change shape for the different sounds of the expressed words. With twins, triplets and more, finding time to address each child individually in order to give them the best chance to learn proper speech is a challenge but not impossible. Having knowledge of the risk for speech delay in multiples is half the battle. Following are some very easy ideas to help you help your multiples with their speech…..then watch out as they all get gabbing! You probably won’t get a word in edgewise
- It is helpful to understand that multiple-birth children are behind their singleton counterparts from the get-go. They, by the nature of their birth, share the available maternal nutrition while in utero and this sharing isn’t always equal. For twins it could a sharing of 50/50, or 70/30, or 60/40 or anywhere in between. For triplets and more, it can be determined by their various birth weights, that not each received equal portions of the available nutrition. As a result, each multiple-birth child begins life from a different position and their progress will not only be different from each other, but will cerainly be different from their singleton counterparts who received 100% of the available nutrition.Solution: Remember never to compare your babies or toddlers to each other and especially to your neighbour’s toddler of the same age. Even though multiples arrive together, they will not necessarily reach the same stage at the same time. As well, there can be differences between boys and girls. As long as each child is progressing, this needs to be your benchmark.
- Multiples don’t have as many chances as single born children to interact directly and individually with their parents. Twins can participate in conversations in which they communicate with either the parent or the other twin. Triplets and more can choose within their own group whom they will converse with, as well as their parents.Solution:Try to schedule as much time as you can talking and playing with each child alone. There is no need to schedule special outings if that is difficult (e.g. in the Winter), but instead, use your daily routine activities. While bathing, feeding, or dressing your child, count toes, sing songs and rhymes, and talk with your child. Take a little extra time to change a diaper and chat with each baby as you do so. Take one child to the supermarket. As your child sits in the cart facing you, this is a great time to talk about what you are seeing, feeling, doing, and touching. If one of your multiples has a tendency to talk for the other(s), this will give all of the children an equal opportunity to practice talking.
- Multiples often copy each other’s poor syntax and mispronunciation of words. This is because when communicating with each other, they often omit the beginning and ending sounds of words and use short phrases.Solution: Some parents think that their multiples’ mispronunciation of words is cute. Instead, it is wise to give your child many opportunities to hear words pronounced correctly. If your child says a word incorrectly, don’t ask him to “say it again.” Instead, say the correct pronunciation, emphasizing the word or sound with which he had difficulty. For example, if your child says, “Me do to pool,” try saying, “I g-go to the pool.” Emphasize “I” by saying it louder and emphasize the “g” sound in “go” by stretching it. Expand your child’s words or phrases into full sentences. Repeat what your child says and add one or two words. Don’t change your child’s meaning, but, instead, make her remarks slightly longer.
Adult using expansion: “Yes, blue hat.”
- By the nature of their birth, multiples have a unique closeness or bonding. The group offers built-in playmates and as such, parents may not feel so pressured to socialize their multiples as they would for a singleton child.Solution:Give your children many opportunities to interact separately with other children. Try to arrange play dates. These can provide wonderful opportunities to develop social and language skills. Your child may begin to model the speech of other children and communicate effectively with his age peers.
- Twins are often born premature and subject to developmental delay. Triplets and more are born even more premature and their developmental delays can be even further, well, delayed.Solution:If you have any questions about your child’s development in any area, at any age, it is important to seek professional help. Expecting too much, or too little, can both be harmful. You might start by expressing your concerns with your pediatrician. This may set your mind at ease if you learn that your children are developing as they should, or get needed help at an early age. There may be some options in your community. If your children are two years or younger, you can call your local school district for a referral to the early intervention services in your area or find listings in your community by looking in the government pages of your phone book under Education or Health Department. If your children are three-five years of age, call your local school district to request an evaluation.
Other ideas for improving and encouraging language development in your multiples
- if your children are 24-30 months or older with very little language or do not turn towards you as you address them, have them checked by their pediatrician to ensure that they are healthy and have no hearing problems.
- feed the children in their highchairs with a space between them for example, one highchair to your left, one in the centre, on the right. When the chairs are set beside each other, we tend to talk ‘between’ our toddlers rather than make eye contact with each child. Further we may be looking down at whose eating what and how much rather than looking at the child, thus not providing each with ample opportunity to focus and watch our mouths move.
- involving other adults, such as grandparents, in the care of your children can take some pressure off of the parents and give the toddlers another chance at meaningful conversations.
- because we are so busy looking after the babies and perhaps other siblings too, we tend to rush through the tasks and “talk into the air.” Pick times and jobs (e.g. grocery shopping with one toddler) when you can slow down, make the necessary eye contact, talk about what you are purchasing and why, thus giving for each child and opportunity to learn and improve.
- it isn’t unusual to have introverts and extroverts within the group. As a result one may try to speak for the other and one could hold back, waiting for his co-sibling to do the actual asking while reaping the benefits, without speaking a word. If this is your experience, don’t let one child speak for the other. Encourage each child to speak for himself. Praise him when he does.
- when your child is struggling to ask a question, don’t interrupt or finish it for her. Offer encouragement to complete the sentence (e.g. saying, “I’m listening.”) and then offer praise when she does. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Take the opportunity to repeat the right sentence and/or expand on it.
Child: See a doggie!
Adult: Yes, I see the brown dog too!
- it isn’t unusal to have one (or more) multiple progress rapidly and the other, for example, may have a prounounced tongue thrust. It is complicated when one child moves forward and another doesn’t. Don’t despair if this is your experience. Having the tongue thrust professionally assessed and with timely speech intervention, things will soon be back on track.
- reading out loud helps a child hear the sounds of words and watch your mouth as words are formed.
- repeat, repeat, repeat important words and phrases.
- offer encouragement and positive feedback for a job well done when each child speaks.
- don’t act instinctively to your child’s needs. Let each voice his needs and wishes.
- encourage each to tell stories: “Tell Daddy what you did today at swimming (the park).”
- remember that your children are individuals and will not necessarily do the same things at the same time. Avoid comparing them to each other.
- several parents have successfully taught their toddlers sign language before they are able to speak. Signing helps them to identify what they want and not become frustrated by not yet being able to form the words. While it is difficult for small babies and toddlers to learn recognized signing, Hildy (mother of twins) introduced her girls to simple signing beginning at age 6-1/2 months. They began picking up the signs by age 9 months and signed their needs until their language skills took over. As Hildy explained: “’ Drink’ or ‘eat’ might be the motion a flat hand towards the mouth.” She noted that her girls were less prone to tantrums, outbursts and fusiness than her friends’ children of similar ages, whom couldn’t always successfully make their needs clear.**
All parents, no matter how busy they are, want their children to grow fully in each stage of development. In order for your children to develop a love of the spoken and written language, it is important to read, sing, and talk to them often. While driving all together in the car, at diaper change or at bathtime are good times to sing and tell stories. When you create a learning environment that is fun, loving, and nurturing for your children, the benefits will last a lifetime.
Double Duty: The Parents’ Guide to Raising Twins, from Pregnancy Through the School Years , Christina Baglivi Tinglof
The Art of Parenting Twins , Patricia Maxwell Malmstrom and Janet Poland
Discussions with Hildy Lesh, mother of twins who used sign language with her babies from 6-1/2 to 19 months old.
*The Relationship Between Multiple Birth Children’s Early Phonological Skills and Later Literacy
Langauge, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools
Volume 29, Issue 1, Pages 11-23.
**Web Sites for Baby Signing Information
Multiple Birth Support Sites
- Multiple Births Canada, Special Needs Support Network
- National Organization for Mothers of Multiples (NOMOTC)
- Mothers of Super Twins (MOST)
- Triplet Connection
About the Authors
Dorothy P. Dougherty, M.A.,CCC-SLP is a Speech/Language Pathologist who has worked with children and adults in clinical and private settings for over 25 years. She is the author of Teach Me How to Say it Right: Helping Your Child with Articulation Problems (New Harbinger Publications, 2005) and How to Talk to Your Baby: A Guide to Maximizing Your Child’s Language and Learning Skills (Perigee/Putnam, 2000). For more information about speech and language development or to contact the author, please go to www.1speechproblems.com .
Lynda P. Haddon, Multiple Birth Educator, mother of 3 daughters, including twins. Working with multiple birth parents, grandparents, researchers, healthcare professionals for over two decades. Author, speaker, multiple birth prenatal educator, writer, bereavement support, creater of her own multiple birth support website at www.jumelle.ca.