Actions are Louder Than Words: The Speech and Movement Connection

Talking doesn’t start at the mouth. Before we can speak or give meaning to language, we must learn to move.

Movement is necessary to explore our surroundings and travel from point A to point B (even if it is just to the couch). Motor development relies on the teamwork of the tactile (touch), proprioceptive (body awareness), and vestibular (movement) systems to establish a physical awareness of self to feel safe and move without fear.

Research has shown that achieving motor milestones may also be closely linked to unlocking cognitive abilities, like speech and language.

Movement and Sound

Before accomplishing a language milestone, a child should also meet a complementary motor achievement. For example:

  • Around 4-6 months of age, infants begin to sit with support. Their vocalizations of vowel-like cooing (“ooo”) now include consonant-like sounds (“mmm”).
  • At about 6-9 months, babies start to sit independently and produce rhythmical arm movements, like banging, shaking, waving, or flapping. Their coos then shift to organized babbling (“baba-baba-baba”). What’s interesting is that once they start babbling, these arm movements reduce.
  • By around 12-15 months, babies begin to walk. As mouthing of objects decrease, their first words start to emerge (“mama”, “dada”).  

Additionally, a 2015 study concluded that poor early motor skills could be a factor in children who have difficulties with speech and language.

In conclusion: motor development serves as catalyst and organizer to speech and language.

On All Fours

Speaking of movement, one form of locomotion that’s been recently removed as a motor milestone but is still worthy of its accolades is crawling. Benefits of crawling include:

  • Developing bilateral coordination (the ability to use both sides of the body in a controlled and organized manner necessary to complete a task or activity) needed for dressing or writing
  • Enhancing body and spatial awareness needed to explore and interact with their environment
  • Engaging the tactile (touch) system through different surfaces on both hands and feet
  • Building upper body strength and stability needed to complete fine motor tasks, like self-feeding
  • Increasing trunk/hip strength and stability needed for walking
  • Improving visual depth perception and hand-eye coordination necessary for reading
  • Expanding problem solving skills when maneuvering around environmental obstacles
  • Integrating primitive reflexes that can hinder purposeful movement or postures, like sitting
  • Promoting autonomy and self-confidence by determining their own speed or destination

In a nutshell, crawling stimulates different areas of the brain that are necessary for future learning. But what does crawling have to do with speech? When your baby crawls, they also acquire right and left movement in their mouth (jaw, lips, and tongue). Not only can they transition from purees to soft foods, but that also means they can make more complicated, rhythmic speech sounds when babbling (“dat-it-dah”).

The Commotion with Motion

The auditory and vestibular senses are best friends. Because of this, they get into each other’s business, helping one another in whatever jobs they’re responsible for. From our auditory processing post, the auditory system helps the vestibular system with movement, coordination, and balance. In turn, the vestibular system has a hand in the development of language and processing auditory information.

“Hips before lips”

For a child to speak clearly, they should have good trunk control and hip stability to coordinate jaw, lip, and tongue movements. Postural control is when your kid’s head, neck, and trunk extend upwards against the pull of gravity to maintain balance. So, when there’s difficulty maintaining an upright position (due to core muscle weakness or presence of primitive reflexes), it can influence your child’s speech. Postural control and support are also important for focused eating, another skill involving the jaw/lip/ tongue.

W-Sitting

This sitting posture is exactly how you picture it: sitting on the floor with knees turned out while the ankles and feet are on either side of the hips forming the letter W. It provides a wide base of support and minimal effort to maintain since it doesn’t require the activated core muscles to sit upright. Although it is a one of the sitting positions toddlers use, it can lead to postural weakness and tight muscles in the hips and legs if it’s their frequent go-to as they get older.

From a speech standpoint, W-sitting can hinder breath support needed to produce speech sounds. The limited trunk support can also affect how your child can articulate words since the oral structures in the mouth need stability to work with precision.

Idiopathic Toe Walking

Some kids toe-walk without a definite explanation. However, it may be a sign of a poorly functioning vestibular system which handles balance and coordination. If it’s not operating appropriately, learning challenges arise. For example, research has found that 77% of children studied who presented with idiopathic toe walking had speech and language delays. This study also showed that 33% had fine motor delays, 40% had visuomotor delays, and 27% had gross motor delays.

This is NOT to say that all kids who do any of these things have something wrong with them. Again, correlation not causation. Just watch your child’s progression.

What Can Be Done?

Movement. By stimulating the vestibular system through movement (whether that be on a swing, slide, jumping, or running), you directly activate the auditory system because these two senses are anatomically connected. You may observe this when riding on a roller coaster and you can’t help but scream as you feel the weightlessness from the drop. You might hear your kid say “wee” as they go down the slide or request “more” when you stop the swing. When the gravity receptors are engaged, so are the hearing ones.

Studies have shown that vestibular stimulation can increase spontaneous speech production and auditory recall.

Next week, we’ll discuss sensory strategies on helping your little ones use their words.


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Sources:
Early motor skills may affect language development (theconversation.com)
Ebert, C. (2018, April 18). Sensory Integration & Speech Delays. Retrieved from seminar.

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