The Importance of Imitating Your Child’s Sounds

By James D. MacDonald, Ph.D., Columbus, OH

Editor’s note: Dr. MacDonald is a professor emeritus of speech language pathology at Ohio State University and has developed the Communicating Partners Center. You can see more of his work at

Your child mainly lives in a world of actions and sensations. You live mainly in a world of thoughts and language. By bridging that gap between you, your child learns and communicates more.

Making sounds is one of the most frequent actions and sensations a child does and it is a critically important developmental step. Sounds are some of your child’s important early actions. In the beginning, long before they are used for speech and communication, sounds are the natural actions that your child’s vocal system makes. Sounds are one of the things children are wired to do and so they do them. Making sounds begins as other motor skills do — by doing them in very primitive and unspecified ways. You may think your child is communicating by making sounds. But, for a long while, your child is just practicing a motor skill.

Sounds are important early sensations. Every sound makes vibrations in your child’s body, just as other sensations like touch, sight and hearing do. At first, young children appear to make sounds because the sensations feel good and are things a child can control and change. Children often play with their sounds almost as if they were action toys. In fact, if we could look closely, we would see that a child plays with sounds much like toys. They are novelties to create and feel.

You might wonder why this matters to your child. It matters a great deal because your child needs to practice sounding a great deal to develop and change the muscles that will make more complicated sounds and then words. Most people take sounds for granted and cannot even remember helping a child develop sounds. But we definitely do.



Many late-talking children and ones with concerns like autism and Down syndrome, or motor problems like cerebral palsy and apraxia, have very serious delays in making and combining sounds. For these children, learning to make sounds is a highly important and commonly ignored developmental stage.

When a child is language delayed or nonverbal, most parents and professionals understandably want them to talk. Of course! The problem is that words and language are not the first steps in talking. Sounds are the first steps in talking. And, children who cannot easily make sounds will fail and become discouraged if everyone is pushing them to make words. People may come to the dangerous conclusion that a child “cannot” talk. Many children, when their partners do not imitate and play with their sounds but only accept and pressure for words, do not talk.

In over 30 years of experience, we have seen adults do very little to support a child’s development of sounds. As soon as a child makes sounds, partners often start trying to get the child to say words or ignore sounds and expect words to come magically.

Think of it. We need to realize that the task of making and combining sounds is a very difficult and complicated muscular activity for many children. Those who have low motor tone (hypotonic) or neurological conditions that will make sounding a very slow process require a great deal of practice.

What also is necessary for later talking, is for children to hear others make sounds that they can make — frequently and right when they are trying to make them. Children will learn our speech sounds when we give them sounds that they can make.

If we do not frequently interact with children with the sounds they can make, we may come to the conclusion that they cannot make sounds or cannot talk. This is like concluding that a novice tennis player cannot learn tennis because, at first, he cannot hit the ball straight. The problem is not that a child cannot talk; the problem is that the child’s partners are simply not allowing enough practice of the little steps necessary for talking.

All of this often can be solved when you get into the habit of imitating your child’s sounds. Why? Children make more sounds when we imitate them. If we do not make sounds that children can make, they may give up and just not try. If we keep trying to get a child to say words without sounding practice, the child will fail because of our impossible expectations. That same child could have had important successes if only you did what he or she could do.


Child Goals

1) More of any sounds — Every child needs to make many sounds all day long to get the practice he needs to make and combine new sounds. This is a very complicated motor process. Consequently, your child’s first goal is to simply make more and more sounds. And you need to accept and support all sounds at first. One way to do this is to imitate all sounds.

2) More changes in sounds — Once your child is a constant sounder, slowly introduce new sounds. If he says “baba,” you might say “bibi” or “mama” or some little next step. He can try sounds that begin to imitate parts of your words. Once you have imitated his sounds for quite a while, he will begin to imitate yours — but only if they are sounds he can try to do.

3) Small steps to words — Once you give her single words she will try rough attempts. That is perfectly okay. Every word involves many tiny motor steps. So rather than thinking of a word as doing just one thing, realize that it involves doing many movements together at the same time.


Observation Activity

Interact with your child five times in a couple days. Pay careful attention to the sounds your child makes — any sounds, not just when he’s communicating. Is he making them to himself? Or is he directing them to people? Do you think he makes sounds to play or to communicate more? Then just look at what you do when he makes sounds. Do you usually respond or ignore them? Do you respond with language he can do? Do you imitate his sounds? And, do you appreciate that sounds are something important for him to do?


Now, describe what happened. Note: You may have someone else such as a coach or therapist observe you.

1. _________________________________________________

2. _________________________________________________

3. _________________________________________________


Practice Activities

Select five daily activities and practice imitating sounds for at least five minutes in each activity. Let your child take the lead and do not make her do the sounds. The goal is for her to practice sounding more and more with you.


Child Goals

1. Make more sounds of any kind.

2. Direct his sound more to people than to himself.

3. Pay attention when you imitate his sounds.

4. Change sounds to be more like yours.

What You Can Do

1. Say her sounds just like she does.

2. Imitate sounds immediately.

3. Imitate her sounds playfully.

4. Imitate sounds even when she does them alone.

5. Play with sounds like the important learning toys they are.

6. After you imitate, wait silently for a response, and then imitate again. Imitate and then change the sound a little.


What Not To Do

1. Ignore sounds he makes to himself.

2. Say sounds or words he cannot do.

3. Forget to show you enjoy hearing his sounds.

4. Correct or judge how he sounds.

5. Show a next step by making him feel his attempt was wrong.


Together Goal

You and your child will get into a habit of sounding back and forth. At first the sounds can be the same, but then you can play a changing game so she gets different practice and begins imitating your sounds. Make imitating sounds a playful game to do in every interaction.

Progress Record

How are you doing?

1. Imitating his sounds_______________

2. Imitating and changing sounds a little_____________________________

3. Waiting for child to make sounds first______________________________

4. Waiting for child to make sounds after you imitate________________________

5. Making sound imitation a frequent game_____________________________


How is your child doing?

1. Making more sounds by herself________________

2. Making more sounds to people_________________

3. Making new sounds_______________________

4. Trying to imitate your words________________

5. Interacting with people more________________

6. Starting to deliberately communicate____________