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2019 Jun

Put Down the Phone & Talk

Make a media plan to ensure communication skills develop.

I was dining with my family at a local restaurant, and I noticed they were all on their phones. Ours was not the only table with this issue. A table nearby had a toddler looking for some interaction. This toddler was device free, but the well-meaning parents were engrossed in their own phones. There was minimal discussion at their table as well as ours. I started wondering…. what impact will cell phones have on the developing social and language skills of children?

The Common Sense Media (2016) polled 1,800 parents of children from 8 to 18 years. Parents reported using their cell phones an average of 9 hours and 22 minutes each day. Surprisingly, they reported that only 1 hour and 39 minutes was work related.

In the book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015), author Sherry Turkle speaks of “sacred spaces” where technology is not allowed. You might consider making a Family Media Plan, as recommended by the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP). This could include designating device-free zones, such as the bed, the dinner table (whether dining at home or at a restaurant #DeviceFreeDinner), outdoors, and perhaps even in the car. I’ve had some of the best parenting conversations with my kids in the car.

We know that toddler screen time is linked to a slower development of speech. In a Canadian study of 900 toddlers from 6 months to 24 months old, 20 percent used mobile devices for an average of 28 minutes each day. Each additional 30 minutes of device usage time was linked to a 49 percent increase in expressive speech delay. Speech delay can be linked to later academic problems.

We know that young children learn language through interaction. This means that the more you speak to them, the more they learn. The alternative is also true: hearing less language leads to less vocalization. The best advice? Interact with your child. Teach your child language by talking to them, playing with them, pointing things out to them, telling them stories, and using different words.

Start by speaking to your baby from birth. Respond to their coos with words. Allow the infant to coo or babble and then reply. From this exchange, they learn a rhythm of communication. Play simple games such as peek-a-boo.

Talk to your child A LOT. Tell them what you are doing as you do it. “Mommy is filling the cup. The cup is red. Red is a color.”

Read to your child: not War and Peace—well, at least not yet. Choose a book that’s appropriate for your child’s age and attention level. It may just be a book of pictures. On the page with an apple, you’d say: “That’s an apple. We eat apples. Apples are red. Apples are sweet.” As they get older, you can read story books like those by Dr. Seuss.

Sing songs to your child. The songs can be silly and made-up or songs you know. The ABC song is very appropriate to sing as it helps kids learn the alphabet. Itsy-Bitsy Spider is another favorite.

Baby signing can be helpful for toddlers who understand more language than they can say. This is great from 12 months to 2 1/2 years when toddlers get frustrated as they struggle to communicate their needs. Using baby sign does not impede the development of language.

Try not to criticize your child’s grammar mistakes, but instead model good grammar. Don’t force your child to speak. Be patient and allow them to speak when they are comfortable. It’s fine to expand on their words. If they say: “Want cookie!” You add, “Oh, you want a delicious chocolate cookie?”

Describe what your child sees, hears, tastes and touches during the day. When you are outside, you can mention: “Do you hear that birdie? That birdie is singing a song. I like birds.”

One of my favorite things to do is to look at family pictures with my kids. Every picture has a story. The children need to be told the stories of their families. This is the nice thing about our cell phones. We can use the photos to tell our children our stories. Cell phones can be inclusive for parents and children when used interactively. Interacting is the whole point.

Dr. Melanie J. Wilhelm is a Doctor of Nursing Practice and a Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner in Norfolk, as well as an Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University. Her book, Raising Today’s Baby: Second Edition, is available on Read more at Follow her at and

Give Your Child a Healthy Start to the School Year

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