What boosts your child's self-esteem, helps you bond with him and makes him feel loved? What helps him socialise and improves his listening and learning, too?
It's not some wonder-therapy or a complicated teaching technique. It's simple. Research shows talking and listening to your child more not only makes him feel valued and loved, but also boosts brainpower and makes him a confident communicator.
But 75% of head teachers across the UK say that in the past five years, more and more children started nursery or school with poor communication skills, unable to form a sentence and make themselves understood.
And what's really worrying for mums is that children with poor language skills are more likely to have learning, behaviour and relationship problems in later life. So why the sudden decline in language development of under-3s? There's a whole host of possible reasons, says Liz Attenborough, manager of the National Literacy Trust's Talk To Your Baby Campaign. Parents' hectic working patterns mean there's less time to talk. Family mealtimes together are a rarity these days and buggies face away from mums so there's less chance for eye contact,' she explains. What's more, some parents feel that expensive educational toys teach communication skills, when time spent just reading to or playing with their children would bring as much pleasure and more benefits.'
How to help
So - let's get talking! It sounds easy, doesn't it? But with so much going on in our lives, we often don't have as much time to spend doing this as we'd like to. And when we do get five minutes together, we just want to switch off, turn on the telly and plonk them in front of it with a bag of chocolate buttons.
Well, the good news is that TV isn't all bad, as long as it's in moderation. In fact, it can be a great talking opportunity when you watch it with your little one, says Liz Attenborough. Videos are especially good because the repetition and familiarity of words and phrases makes it easier for children to learn from them.' Switch off the TV after the programme has finished and discuss what you've seen with your child. Try to limit TV time to around half an hour for under-2s or an hour for 3- to 5 year-olds.
Other simple steps can make a world of difference, too. No matter how busy you are, you can fit talking to your child in your daily routine so that everything becomes a learning experience. Talk about the shopping as you're putting away. Chat about the birds and cars you pass as you walk him to the park. Make eye contact with your child as much as you can when you talk.
Debbie Hawkes, 33, from Leicester, found bathtime was a great opportunity to encourage her son Ashley, 3, to talk. She says: He loved pointing to his body parts - head, hands, feet and tummy - and getting me to name them and pour water over them with a toy watering can. I'd encourage him to say the words after me, and over time he began saying the words himself instead of just pointing.'
Don't feel daft
You may not get a two-way conversation going for some time, but keep talking anyway - and don't feel daft when you're out and about. Shirley Davies, 39, from Coventry, says: One day I was at the supermarket with my daughter Layla, 9 months. I chatted as I put the groceries in the trolley and one old guy came up to me and said, "You're wasting your breath - she won't answer you!" I felt really small, but I carried on because I know Layla loves to be talked to and she's a person in her own right. Why should she be ignored?'
Liz Attenborough agrees. The key is to chat whenever you can,' she says. Show you're interested in what your chid is trying to tell you by stopping to listen to him too. You are your child's first and greatest teacher - he loves the sound of your voice and will learn more from you than anyone else.'
Is she normal?
Children develop at different rates, but between their second and third birthday your child may be able to:
- String together two or three words - me want drink!'
- Show curiosity by asking you lots of questions.
- Enjoy picture books and name common items.
- Join in with rhymes.
- Use 300 to 500 words.
- Answer simple who', what' and where' questions, like Where's Molly's hat?'
- Understand simple instructions such as Bring your shoes to Mummy.'
- Form some plurals by adding s'.
- The National Literacy Trust leaflet, Talk To Your Baby, can be downloaded from www.literacytrust.org.uk, or call 020 7828 2435.
It's good to talk
Talk to your toddler constantly. She'll be a little chatterbox in no time.
- Make mealtimes a family affair. Eating together at a table is a chance to chat about your day.
- Read with your child. Turn off the TV, sit her on your lap and tell her a story. Using puppets and props will help keep her attention.
- Sing. Kids love action songs and nursery rhymes and, in time, will usually try to imitate you.
- Play. Set aside at least 15 minutes a day to sit and play with your child. Share her favourite toy, or play giddy-up on your knee. Talk as you're doing everyday activities, whether you're cooking dinner or in the car.
Lianne Harper, 39, from Stockport, took her children's language development for granted - until she found there were problems.
She says: My eldest, Michael, had a big vocabulary by the age of 2. But Cameron was slow to talk and eventually diagnosed Autistic.'
When her third son Ashley showed a language delay, Lianne took action. I enrolled Ashley into a private nursery for two days a week, hoping he'd pick up words from the other children. His speech improved but looking back I think it was because I was spending more time speaking and reading to him at home.
When Bethany came along, I made a conscious effort to talk to her more, sing nursery rhymes and read to her as much as possible with the result that she was saying her first words before she was 1. Now she's a real chatterbox and so confident.
I've come to realise that you can't just rely on them picking up words from what they hear in the background. They need to be spoken to and listened to.'