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How we communicate

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HealthWiki > Helping Children Live with HIV > Chapter 4: Communicating with children > How we communicate

We communicate with young children through many different actions: sounds, smiles and frowns, touch, hand and body movements, and also words. Our actions of caring for a child’s needs — or our failure to act — are also communication.

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a man speaking to a baby who is underneath sheets on a clothesline
Did that scare you?

We use our whole body to communicate

Babies and young children use their bodies, faces, and sounds to communicate when they are hungry, wet, uncomfortable, interested in something, or sleepy. To understand a young child, watch her face and body carefully:

  • Does she look comfortable or tense? Is she crying, smiling, or sleepy? Does she seem afraid or curious?
a woman thinking while a baby cries
So upset! She just slept and ate. Maybe her tummy hurts.
  • How does she respond to your care?
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  • How does she respond to others? Who or what does she watch? Does she hold her arms out to someone, or push them away? Does she move into a group or does she hide?
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Children notice a great deal about how people act and speak around them.

  • To communicate well with a child, get down at his level and speak gently with him.
a woman talking with a child
You can be Auntie’s big helper.
  • Children learn to communicate mostly by watching, listening to, and copying what their caregivers do.
an older child playing with a younger child
  • You may communicate things you do not mean to if you talk loudly or harshly to a young child, or to others nearby, or if your face looks worried or angry as you care for your child.
a woman talking to a baby
Sssst! You are dirty again.

Children learn to communicate in stages

As with learning other skills, babies and children learn to communicate in stages. Simple skills lead to more abilities to communicate.

In the first 3 years, a child’s communication usually develops through these stages:

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  • birth to 3 months
a baby talking
Da da da
  • 4 to 8 months
Cries when hungry or wet, makes cooing noises when comfortable Babbles — listens to sounds and tries to copy them
a baby talking
  • 9 to 12 months
a child talking
Why he do that?
  • 1 to 3 years
Says a few words and uses gestures Begins to put words and ideas together

As a child grows, she sees and copies actions, and hears and copies language being used in daily life. That is how her understanding of how to communicate and her ability to express her thoughts, needs, and feelings develop. But a child who cannot hear well has difficulties learning to communicate.

a child talking to a younger child

HIV is one of several health problems that can cause hearing problems. With help, children who do not hear well can learn to communicate using hand signs and watching people’s lips. Their families must learn to communicate with them in the ways they can best understand. See Helping Children Who Are Deaf, from Hesperian.

HIV can also affect a child’s communication in other ways. Children weakened by illness or who live with people they do not know well may need to be talked to more to help them engage with their world or build relationships with their caregivers. And when caregivers are depressed, too busy, or always tired, or families are rejected because of stigma, children may not communicate as much. Eventually, their learning suffers.

This page was updated:27 Nov 2019