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Preschoolers with Older Siblings Develop Speech Slower. Why?

Feb 11, 2022 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.

Studies on siblings and language development show that children from large families develop communication skills more slowly because of less attention from parents. 

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

A study published in the February issue of Pediatrics shows that parents/adults aren’t the only ones influencing a child’s language abilities in the home.

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What Research Has to Say About Siblings and Language Development?

Other studies show that kids from larger families (3+) have parents with less time to dedicate to just one child’s learning. Studies have also shown that the youngest child in these families has less-developed vocabularies than their older siblings.

This study of 385 preschoolers found that kids from bigger families (3+ kids) fared worse on a standard vocabulary test. But there was no gap if a child had an attentive older sibling. 

Cognitively Sensitive Older Siblings

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 means the older child is in tune with what a younger 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.

These sensitive older siblings pick up on cues that the younger child is sending and 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.

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

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. They also 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. Other factors, such as family income, if their family was bilingual, or if the parents were born in a different country, didn’t change the results. The only thing that appeared to make a difference, is if the child had a sensitive big brother or sister. Only then, the vocabulary gap disappeared. 

The researchers also looked at the mothers’ sensitivity in interactions with the children and it was still lower than when the brother and sister 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, encourage other adults such as grandparents and educators 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 the 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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The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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