Long before your baby understands any words, he has been communicating with you. At first, when you heard him cry, you knew that he was hungry, wet, or wanted to be held. When he smiled, you understood that he was happy. In these early months, you were interpreting his behavior; he didn’t even know that he was communicating with you. But then he began to learn that when he cried or laughed, you responded. You picked him up, changed his diaper, fed him, talked to him, or laughed and snuggled with him. Understanding that behavior can produce a response from another is the beginning of voluntary communication for infants. Thus, the way you communicate with your visually impaired baby and respond to his communications to you lays the foundation for his understanding of the world and his later development of language.

How Babies Learn About Communication When They Are Blind or Visually Impaired

In the beginning, your baby doesn’t understand language, but he starts to understand some basic things you do to communicate. He may not see you stretching your arms out toward him as he lies in his crib, but if you always touch the top of his arms before you pick him up, he soon learns that this touch is a signal that he is going to be picked up. He responds to your communication by raising his arms toward you. When you consistently match your action with a word or phrase—such as “up”—he begins to learn that the word has a meaning. Most infants and toddlers understand much more of what you say (known as “receptive language”) than they are able to speak (“expressive language”).

Your child with a visual impairment may respond differently than you might expect when you talk to him or otherwise communicate. Instead of waving his arms and kicking excitedly when you speak to him, for example, your child might be still so that he can hear you. If he can’t see you well, he may not meet your gaze or turn toward you. He may not be able to look or point at a toy to show you that he wants it. But, if you pay attention to your child’s behavior and the way he responds to you, you will be able to understand what he is trying to communicate to you. Give him a little extra time to take in what his senses are telling him and then respond to you.

Before your baby can learn to understand language and eventually to talk himself, he needs to hear lots of words. It’s important to talk to your baby as you go about your daily routine. Describe what you are doing as you diaper him, dress him, and walk down the street with him in the backpack or stroller. For example, as he sits in his infant seat in the kitchen, you might tell him, “It’s time to start making supper. I’m going to take some food out of the refrigerator and start making a salad. Look, here is a red tomato. Can you touch it? It’s red and cold and smooth.” Show him objects and tell him their names. As much as you can, let him touch the things you are talking about, especially things that are important to him, such as his bottle, toys, and articles of clothing. Be consistent in the names you use so that he starts to associate the words he is hearing with the objects. Read to your baby, too, and give him many different kinds of experiences during these first months.

Helping Your Child Learn to Talk

As your child becomes more mobile, encourage him to move around to encounter new objects and activities and learn all about them. Let him help take clothes out of the dryer, for example, put them in a basket, and pull them out for you to fold and put away. The more he is exposed to different kinds of objects, activities, and experiences at this age, and the more language he hears associated with those things, the more his understanding of language will grow.

Here are some other suggestions for encouraging your baby’s development of language as he moves beyond infancy:

  • Respond when your baby babbles to encourage his use of sounds. You can have a conversation without words, in which you respond to his babbling by imitating his sound and then pause to let him have a chance to answer. This type of interaction helps him learn that taking turns is part of communicating.
  • Play lots of other games with him that include sounds, songs, and taking turns—for example, Peek-a-Boo or “Where’s the Baby?” (Cover his face with a clean diaper and ask, “Where’s Jimmy?” Then remove the diaper and exclaim, “There he is!”) If he can’t see you when you remove the covering or his hands from his eyes, blow a gentle puff of air in his face. Another favorite, as your baby begins to learn his body parts, may be asking him to show you his eyes, nose, or belly.
  • Songs and hand play, such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” or “Where Is Thumbkin?” are a wonderful way to help your baby engage in interactions with you and others.
  • Give your child opportunities to communicate by allowing him to express his needs instead of your anticipating and meeting them. Try interrupting a favorite activity so he can ask for “more.” For example, you might stop pushing him in a swing until he kicks his legs or squeals. Interpret his body language and/ or sounds as communication and put them into words by responding, “Oh, you want more swinging,” and start pushing again. Or, offer him another spoonful of cereal when you think he’s full to give him the chance to push it away; then tell him, “Yes, you’ve had enough cereal. You’re full.”
  • Put words to your child’s feelings. When you know he is hurt, hungry, tired, cold, hot, angry, or happy, you can help him label the emotions. “You fell down. Ow! I know that hurts.” “You are eating quickly. You must be hungry!”

Facial expressions are an important part of communication. If your child has vision, engage him in a lot of face-to-face interaction in which you use exaggerated facial expressions. If he can’t see your face, he still needs to learn that when engaging in conversation with someone, he needs to look in the direction of that person. Put him on your lap and play sound and word games with him to help him learn to look toward you. Comment on his facial expressions, for example, “You look happy.”

By the end of your baby’s first year, his babbling may have resolved into a few consistent words, such as “mama” or “dada” or “baba” (for bottle). Your baby has started to talk!