Today on my show “Teach Me To Talk with Laura and Kate” (click the icon in the right column to hear it for yourself!), one of our wonderful callers Annette shared with us that although her son is talking now and understands and says, “Dada,” he’s not yet saying “Mama.” How heartbreaking for her!
This is a mom who’s poured out her blood, sweat, and tears over the last several months to do anything she can to pull him into interacting with her, and now that he is, she’s elated. But …. she still doesn’t hear that magical word, that word we all wait with baited breath to hear from our sweet, little babies - “Mama.”
On our show today, we gave Annette a couple of different ways to work on how to help him learn to call her Mama, but before we get into that, let’s review what could be going on. (Let me say that I didn’t explore all of these with Annette on air, and I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her cute little boy, so I don’t know with any certainty why her particular son isn’t doing this yet. However, it is not uncommon for children with language delays to struggle with learning to say “Mama” for several different reasons. I’m going to discuss the possibilities of why he’s not doing it yet, and hopefully give you some ideas so that you can work on these at home with your child who may not yet be saying this wonderful word.
Possibility #1 - Conceptually he has not made the connection between this particular word and his actual mother.
Sometimes it’s because this word has not been presented to him in the same way that he learns all of his other words. Since his mother is likely doing most of the teaching, it’s hard for her to label herself in a way that makes sense to him. When she’s teaching him names for other things, she’s repeating the word many times, holding up the object , or pointing to it so he gets what she’s talking about. She may even have him “ask” for it so that she knows he’s made the connection between the word and the actual object or event. This is kinda’ hard to do with yourself! Even though a mother is likely saying “mama” in context all day long (”Give it to Mama.” “Do you want Mama?” “Where’s Mama - Here I am!”), it’s just not the same for him as when his primary language labeler says it, shows it, and does it in the way that she teaches everything else.
Solution - Use very specific activities to teach him to conceptualize or learn this as your label/name. Ideas you can try at home:
1. Play the “Mama “game.
Just like you’ve tried to teach him “Dada” or any other name by constantly labeling that person, you’re going to have to get someone to play with you to label you as “Mama.” The most success I’ve had with this is by placing the child in a confined area, say the crib, or behind a gate, or in a room with a closed door and me. Mom hides outside the room, behind the door, or bends down below the crib so that the child can’t see her. Then I model calling, “Mama. Mama. Maaaaaaamaaaaaaaaa” several times using an exaggerated, playful, and animated tone of voice. After doing this several times, Mama excitedly jumps out from her hiding place with a big smile and shouts, ”Mama!” We all laugh and smile and hug and tickle so that it’s very clear that this is a fun game that we all want to play again. Then we play it again. And again. And again, until I think he’s ready to begin to try to imitate “Mama” when I model this. If he even hints that he’s trying to say this on his own, I ask Mom to pop up with the biggest reaction she can muster so that he links his action (saying the word) with her return. Older siblings are GREAT at playing this game with younger brothers and sisters. The act of having someone else “call” you and label you as “mama” sometimes helps a child solidfy this concept.
2. Play the “name” game for everyone at home.
I usually recommend that families do this at dinner or at another time when everyone in your family is seated and isn’t distracted. (Meaning no TV or other playful activity going on!) Start with the “name” your child most easily understands or says and ask, “Where’s ______?” Build up the anticipation by asking it several times. Hold your hands out and look around expectantly. Wait for your child to look at the person, point, say the name himself, or somehow indicate where the person is. Even if he doesn’t, have everyone excitedly point, look, and shout the person’s name. Have the person named hold up their arms or clap or do something to indicate that he or she is the person named. Laugh, giggle, smile, hug, and make this a total riot for your toddler. Repeat it for every member of your family, but especially have someone else ask, “Where’s Mama” so he doesn’t hear that label from you.
Possibility #2 - He is a visual learner and needs a new method of presentation for this word to make sense and ”sink in.”
Some kids learn almost everything they know visually, by seeing it, and not auditorily, just from hearing it. That’s what makes it so difficult for kids like this to learn language since language is an auditory communication system. These are the kids who like to look at pictures in books, and these are the kids who LOVE television and videos. Use this to your advantage.
Solution - Teach him visually.
Make a ”Mama Movie.” Have your husband, a grandparent, an older sibling, or your best friend come and shoot some footage of you in some very focused activities so he can learn to label you as ”Mama.” This has been a huge success every time I’ve used it.
Try to shoot the beginning shots with as plain a background as possible. Try to look as “normal” as possible. If you usually wear sweat pants and have your hair in a pony tail, don’t doll up for this movie. Your kid may not recognize you!
Begin by standing right there in living color, looking right into the camera and saying “Mama.” Smile. Pause. Say it again. Wave. Say it again. Blow kisses or do any other action your child might associate with you. Say Mama in this way 5 or 6 different times with huge pauses in between so that your child can begin to imitate and say “mama” himself during these pauses. Then have your person behind the camera say it a few times in imitation of you, or after you say “Mama” again several times. This will help your child begin to imitate this word.
After a few rounds of this, turn the camera off and reposition yourself behind a door or or couch or counter. Then have the person filming turn the camera back on focused on your hiding place. Have the other person ask, “Where’s Mama? Mama. Mama!” Jump out from behind the obstacle in a very animated and playful way and say, “Mama” with as much warmth and excitement as you can muster. Again have your camera person say, “Mama! Mama!” Repeat this several different times in several different locations. Don’t forget to use pauses so that your child can being to imitate the word “mama” at the appropriate times.
Sometimes families have added other statements such as, “There she is!” But I think it’s most effective to limit the word to “Mama” so that there’s no doubt what you want your child to learn to say.
You can repeat this with other family members too. But again, if “Mama” is the goal, don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be!
Once your child can do this, move on to the Mama games listed above in #1 or reenact some of your “hiding” places from the movie in real-life too.
For kids who love books, make your very own Mama photo album. Have someone take lots of current digital pictures of you. You’ll need new ones, not ones from 20 pounds ago, or when your hair was longer or blonder, or any other pre-mom photos since we all know how different you look now that you’re sleep-deprived and exhausted from chasing a toddler! It’s so hard for most moms to come up with several pictures since we are usually the ones behind the camera! Take several new ones, and again in your “normal” everyday Mom attire. Try to get lots of close ups with few background distractions too.
Buy a small, cheap album from the Dollar store and place the pictures inside. Don’t spend lots of money on the album or buy a nice one that you’ll use as a keepsake, because my hope is that your child will love it so much that he’s going to want to carry it around with him all of the time. You’ll be less likely to let him do it if it’s expensive or pretty, and you’ll find yourself getting too upset if he tears it, chews it, whirls it at the dog, or flips the pictures with his dirty, little hands. Help him look at it and say “Mama” about 150 times with as few other words as you can force yourself to do. Point to yourself. Say it again and wait, wait, wait for him to say it back to you. Have other people look at it with him too. Try to use this during times when he is calm and more likely to look at it for more than a second or two. Right before nap or bedtime is a good idea, or when he’s strapped into his car seat, or sitting in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office when you need a quiet activity.
Possibility #3 - For whatever reason, he can’t say the sound /m/ and/or sequence it with a vowel yet to form the word “Mama.”
This could be a physiological issue - he has low muscle tone so he can’t get his lips consistently closed to form the speech sound /m/. (Look for lip closure at other times. It actually takes very little lip “strength” to close your lips to produce an intelligible /m/ sound, so if he can do it when he’s not talking, low tone is not a significant factor for him.)
This could be a sensory issue - Some kids don’t like the feeling of their lips being together to vibrate for /m/. These are the kids who may refuse lots of foods, hate having their faces washed, or flip out when you try to brush their teeth. They truly are HYPERSENSITIVE in and around their mouths or possibly all over their bodies.
Then there’s the other extreme. HYPOSENSITIVE - These kids have so little awareness of their mouths that they don’t even know “how” to make an /m/ sound. Usually there are other indicators such as profuse drooling after age 2 since they don’t routinely close their mouths (usually mouth breathers from a sensory perspective OR because they have so many allergy/respiratory issues that they HAVE to mouth breathe!). This may be a kid who constantly places toys or other things in his mouth. Or it may be a kid who overstuffs his mouth with food to the point that he gags. He lacks the normal sensations in his mouth. He literally does not “feel” things normally.
This could also be a coordination, or motor planning and sound sequencing issue. He may even be able to use an /m/ sound alone, but not necessarily combined with the ‘a’ for Mama.
Solution - Work on the /m/sound.
My favorite way to get this sound is by doing ”mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm, mmm” with foods he loves. Exaggerate it. Shake your shoulders when you do it. Make it so silly and captivating that he’s going to want to try to imitate you.
While earlier in my career I may have tried chapstick or lip gloss on your lips and then hers (or his!) and again exaggerated rubbing my lips together to increase sensory awareness of his lips, now we know that that’s more likely to promote tongue protrusion since the child will only want to lick that yummy stuff right off his lips! Some SLPs like vibrating toys or textured spoons, but I’ve even stopped doing all fo this.
You MAY even try helping him get his lips closed by placing your index finger above his top lip and your thumb below his bottom lip and helping him close his lips, but if he’s negative or over-reactive to this very hands-on approach, stop. Don’t overdo this method because then you’ll ruin it for the both of you!
One little guy I have right now is responding very well to the verbal cue, “Hide your lips” to produce an /m/ sound when he watches me model this sound.
When he can do “m”, or even if he can’t, keep modeling “mama” in speech often so he begins to imitate it, even if it’s not in context, or purposeful just yet.
I hope these ideas help your child begin to say this magic word! AND you have to promise NOT to complain when he says it so much in a few years that it makes you crazy, but that’s a whole different post!!! Laura