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Communication: An Introduction

This lesson provides an introduction to communication for infants and toddlers. A key learning point is the importance of communication skills for infants’ and toddlers’ overall development and learning.

  • Define communication and discuss its importance for our lives.
  • Reflect on your own ideas and experiences associated with communication.
  • Discuss how relationships promote communication development and learning in infants and toddlers.



" Of all the life skills available to us, communication is perhaps the most empowering." - Brett Morrison

We are by nature social beings, and communication plays a significant part in our daily personal and professional lives. What comes to mind as you think about the word “communication?” Perhaps you are thinking about the words “talking” or “speaking.” Listening? Understanding? Body language?

Being able to effectively communicate one’s needs, feelings and emotions is critical to lifelong success. Effective communication helps us better understand people or situations and enables us to build trusting and respectful relationships, resolve conflicts, and create environments where ideas, problem solving, and empathy can flourish.

As simple as communication seems, much of what we try to communicate to others—and what others try to communicate to us—gets misunderstood. Our ability to communicate and understand others is dependent upon how we interpret and make meaning out of the information we take in. We take in this information using our senses, including hearing what others say, seeing body language, and experiencing emotional responses. We then make meaning out of the information. Challenges to communication occur when we consider the fact that the ways we interpret and make meaning of information varies from person to person. Miscommunications can cause conflict and frustration in personal and professional relationships. The way we make meaning of information is a result of our early experiences, our beliefs and values, and other influences. Pause for a moment and think about situations in your own life where communication seemed successful and unsuccessful. What feelings did you associate with these situations? Perhaps excitement, contentment or relief when communication was effective? Frustration, anger or disappointment when effective communication seemed difficult to achieve?

What is Communication?

Effective communication is more than just the exchange of information; it’s about understanding the emotion behind the message. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards defines communication as “a tool that human beings use to meet their physical, social, and emotional needs” (2012, p. 27). A goal of effective communication is to find a balance between thinking and feeling. This balance involves conveying your thoughts without letting the emotion behind the message take over.

Effective communication involves a variety skills, including nonverbal communication, active listening, emotional awareness, and the ability to manage stress. Communication can be achieved through spoken language, as well as through facial expressions, gestures, movements, postures, and touch. Pictures, images and written symbols are means to communicate. No matter the method, effective communication can help support and improve relationships, teamwork, decision-making and problem solving. According to researchers Robert Stillman and Ellin Siegel-Causey (1989), people communicate for different reasons:

  • To affect another person’s behavior
  • To offer information
  • To convey thoughts and feelings
  • For the purely social reason of engaging in an interaction with someone

What are some reasons you engage in communication with other individuals in your daily life?

What Does Communication Look Like in Infants and Toddlers?

Infants are born ready to interact and communicate! Even before they have the abilities and skills to interpret and speak words, they are attentive to sounds, facial expressions, and the world around them. For example, infants will gaze into the eyes of their caregivers and take their turn in a conversation, such as “cooing” back and forth. Infants are intentional about communication and able to communicate specific desires and needs. Their intentionality is seen through the use of gestures, eye contact, and persistent attempts to communicate a request, such as crying when hungry. Infants quickly realize that when they make a noise, people respond. When caregivers are consistently responsive to an infant’s cries, the infant begins to trust this means of communication because his needs are being met.

Infants also communicate with their caregivers through nonverbal engagement cues. Infants might communicate their desire to engage and stay engaged by reaching for a caregiver. Caregivers might see an infant’s eyes widen, a smile, or a turn of the head toward the caregiver. Infants also use disengagement cues to communicate that they are ready for a break from an interaction. Disengagement cues include whimpering, frowning, back arching, turning away, or an increase in the rate of sucking.

As infants grow older, they begin to babble and talk. They understand words used in combination with their caregiver’s gestures, tone and facial expressions. Close to 18 months of age, toddlers begin to use action words that express what they see or want, such as “me go,” or “boots on.” They also continue to physically express their needs and wants; what they do physically is just as important as what they actually say. For example, a toddler may throw a tantrum to communicate a message when they don’t yet have the language to do so. “No,” and “mine,” are words toddlers use to assert themselves and take control over their world. Asserting independence is an early and important step toward becoming his or her own person. Toddlers are also experimenting with and beginning to learn the basics of grammar. For example, a 32-month-old might say, “I taked a nap today.” Toddlers can continue to understand how language works as their caregivers respond with the correct form, such as, “Oh, yes! You took a nap today. You were feeling quite sleepy.”

Learning to communicate and use language is one of children’s tasks during the first three years of life. As an infant and toddler caregiver, you play an important role in supporting the development of and the enjoyment in this process.

Relationships: How It All Happens

Relationships affect all areas of infants’ development, including communication. It is through relationships, for example, that infants and toddlers learn what happens when they cry, laugh or make a scared face. Through these consistent, appropriate and individually sensitive interactions, infants learn how to trust their caregivers, share emotions, respond and regulate strong emotions, and understand facial expressions and tone of voice associated with certain emotions (Smith, 2005). Infants develop trusting relationships based on the consistent and contingent care they receive from sensitive caregivers, and through these relationships they learn to draw understanding and build skills from their communicative and social interactions.


Communication: An Introduction

Watch this video to learn about the importance of communication for individuals’ lives


Infants and toddlers watch and listen to the people around them. Communication and language development require other areas of development, such as visual skills, thinking skills, and memory. The experiences offered from multiple domains contribute greatly to their development and learning. Infants and toddlers learn to communicate not only through the words you use, but by what and how you do things, such as holding and smiling at them. Take time to review the strategies listed below which highlight ways to support communication for the infants and toddlers in your care:

  • Touch, cuddle, and sing to babies and toddlers
  • Point to objects as you name them
  • Hold and rock infants and toddlers to communicate reassurance and comfort
  • Invite babies and toddlers to make sounds while singing and sharing nursery rhymes. Learn a few simple rhymes like “Hickory Dickory Dock”, “Humpty Dumpty”, and “Hey Diddle Diddle.” Sing simple movement songs like “Pat a Cake”, “Row, Row, Row your Boat”, “Where is Thumbkin?”, and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
  • Extend the sounds and words used by infants and toddlers; for example, if a toddler says, “Me home,” you might say, “You want to go home. After snack time, Daddy will be here to pick you up and go home.”
  • Reading books, pointing to and naming things in the illustrations.

Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, the Communication & Language Development Competency Reflection, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Infant & Toddler Communication & Language Development Course Guide

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Read and review the Exploring Communication activity and take a few minutes to respond to the questions. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


Infants and toddlers give cues that can help you understand what they are trying to communicate and how you should respond. All young children are different and will develop their own ways to communicate their needs and wants. To help you further recognize the cues of the infants and toddlers in your care, complete the handout, Communication Cues, and write down what you notice. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator.


The process of exchanging information


Finish this statement: If a toddler says, “I eated a snack today,” you should…
True or False? Relationships between caregivers and infants and toddlers do not affect how children communicate.
How do infants communicate with their caregivers?
References & Resources

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Bernstein, D. K., & Levey, S. (2002). Language Development: A review. In D. K. Bernstein & E. Tiegerman-Farber (Eds.), Language and Communication Disorders in Children (5th ed., pp. 27-94). Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Brazelton, T.B., Koslowski, B., &  Main, M. (1972). The Origins of Reciprocity: The early mother-infant interaction. In M. Lewis & L.A. Rosenblum (Eds.), The effect of the infant on its caregiver (pp. 49-76). New York: Wiley-Interscience.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2015). DAP with Infants and Toddlers.

Nurani, Y., & Utami, D. A. (2017). Early Childhood Education Teachers' Effective Communication Based Teaching Skill. In Proceedings of the 9th International Conference for Science Educators and Teachers (pp. 723-728). Atlantis Press.

Owens, R.E. (2005). Language Development: An introduction (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

Smith, A. D. (2005). The Inferential Transmission of Language. Adaptive Behavior, 13(4), 311-324.

Stillman, R., & Siegel-Causey, E. (1989). Introduction to Nonsymbolic Communication. In E. Siegel-Causey & D. Guess (Eds.), Enhancing nonsymbolic communication interactions among learners with severe disabilities (pp. 1-13). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective, (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

Zero to Three (2015). Supporting your Child’s Communication Skills.