There have been recent studies that look into the role and influence that having an older sibling play on a younger child’s speech and language development.

Prior studies have shown that children who come from a large family, develop communication skills at a slower rate because of less attention from mom and dad. 

However, more recent research has shown that having an older sibling that is “caring and sensitive,” makes a difference. 

Experts say that the study that was printed on January 27th and in the February issue of “Pediatrics,” show that it’s not only the parents/adults in the home that are influencing the child’s language abilities.

What Research Has to Say About Siblings and Language Development?

A number of studies have found that children who are in larger families (at least three children) have parents that have less time to dedicate to just one child’s learning. Studies have also shown that the youngest child in these families have less-developed vocabularies than their older siblings.

In the new study of 385 preschoolers, researchers found that those from bigger families (at least three kids) did fare a bit worse on a standard vocabulary test. But that gap was erased if a child had an attentive older sibling. 

Lead researcher Heather Prime, a doctoral student in clinical child psychology at the University of Toronto, found that  it’s a “cognitively sensitive” older sibling who makes a difference. That basically means the older child is in tune with what a young sibling can understand, and changes the way he or she talks to match that – may be slowing down or using simpler sentences, but not “baby-talking” them, either.

Sensitive big brother or sister can help your youngest child with language development.

These sensitive older siblings pick up on cues that the younger child is sending and will respond appropriately when the parents cannot. The findings are based on 385 Ontario families who were part of a larger, long-term study on child development. Researchers followed one child from each family starting at birth.

When the children were 3 years old, the researchers let them play a game that measures their receptive vocabulary. These are the words that the child can understand when in a social exchange. In addition, they watched the children play during an unstructured game with their older sibling, who was at least 5 years old. 

Overall, the study found that preschoolers from bigger families scored lower on vocabulary tests. When they weighed in other factors, such as family income, if their family is bilingual, or if the parents were born in a different country, the results did not change. The only thing that appeared to make a difference, is if the child had a sensitive big brother or sister. Only then, did the vocabulary gap disappear. 

The researchers also looked at the mothers’ sensitivity in interactions with the children and it was still lower than when the brother and sister were actively engaged with their younger sibling. 

Why Does This Happen?

Learning language is a social process; we need to be engaged and actively participating in social exchanges to learn new vocabulary, understand the vocabulary and then be able to use those words in daily conversations. 

Although we don’t know what makes an older sibling sensitive, researchers believe a lot of it has to do with parental role and child rearing. If the 5 year old sibling and 3 year old sibling are fighting over a toy and the older sibling says “that’s mine” and rips it away, an option to create a more sensitive environment would be to ask the older child how he/she would feel if their toy got ripped away from them. 

This demand encourages the older child to think about emotions and responses prior to acting out of impulse. Although it’s important for parents to frame this thinking, other adults such as grandparents and educators, should also be encouraged to provide these teachable moments to school-aged children. 

What Can Parents Do to Help?

  • Encourage your children to play together as much as possible. Reciprocal play is great! This is when both children need to be engaged in the activity for it to work. For example, rolling a ball back and forth. 
  • Pick a handful of words to repeat over and over. My daughter does this to my son all of the time because I model it in front of her. When it’s time to eat, I sign the word “eat” to him, but also say it several times. My daughter now goes to my son before he eats and does the same thing. It allows him to hear the vocabulary, but also shows him that she is interested in what he is doing. 
  • Make fun sounds and pair them with movement. Toddlers and babies love to move. An example of this would be to say “pop pop” when popping bubbles with your fingers. Say “choo choo” when pushing the train on the floor. 
  • Pointing and repeating is a great way for your child to hear words frequently and also give them a visual representation of what the words mean. Point to things in your everyday routine and repeat them three times. This might feel silly at first but the more your child hears the word, the quicker they are going to comprehend it and be able to repeat it back to you.
  • Imitate desired speech to all of your children, whether a baby or toddler. Kids imitate the speech that they hear so it’s important to not use nonsense words, speak to them slowly and use correct grammar. 

In addition to these tips and tricks, start practicing with Speech Blub app to boost your child’s language development.

Additional Reading

Read up more articles that directly relate to this issue. Some of those blogs include: (1) Tips and Tricks to enhance language, (2) Bilingualism and (3) Speech Delay and Hereditary

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