There are a few firsts you absolutely don’t want to miss in your baby’s life. Baby’s first smile, first steps, and that very first word. Like most parents, you probably can’t wait for the moment your baby starts talking.
So, when do babies start talking?
Your child’s actually been communicating with you ever since you first laid eyes on your little bundle of joy. Your baby has been crying when unhappy, making a range of facial expressions, and reaching for the things baby wants for a while now.
You’re not likely to be worried, or even thinking, about language delays but you’re probably keen for your baby’s language skills to get to the next level.
Let’s find out about your baby’s speech and language development.
At what age do babies talk?
Language development is a slow process. It takes a long time to establish a large enough vocabulary for meaningful conversations. Most babies say their first word between 11 and 14 months of age.
However, babies begin making speech sounds very early – as in, from birth.
Popular first words include ‘ma ma’ and ‘da da’, but babies might say any word they’ve heard often enough. They might be complex or just a few simple words.
On average, by 16 months, girls can say about 50 words, and boys have a vocabulary of around 30. It’s common for boys to be two months behind their female peers.
By 2 years old, babies will know up to 200 words – although they might not use all of them. They might also be able to say two or three-word phrases, such as ‘More banana’.
By their third birthday, babies’ further developed vocabulary will allow them to communicate with more complicated sentences and they’ll be able to have more advanced conversations with you.
How will my baby learn to talk?
For babies to learn to talk and say meaningful words, several things must happen:
- Your baby’s brain must be able to match objects with their names
- Your baby’s tongue and lips must have the dexterity to form the shapes necessary to make certain sounds.
Speech development, including the correct word production process is anything but simple.
First, the baby hears a word many times until it can be matched to what it represents in the baby’s brain. Now, baby has to make the correct sounds for it to be a recognizable word. Once we’re able to recognize what the baby means, we should keep naming that thing correctly for the baby to learn the appropriate pronunciation.
Some babies make it very obvious that they’re trying to learn to talk. They point at things they want to hear the names for.
Some babies start speaking their first words long before their first birthday. Others take longer to develop control of their tongue and lips to say complete words, although they can still understand what you are saying.
Your baby will first start experimenting with noises at just a few months old, with simple repeated vowel sounds, such as ‘Oooh’ and ‘Aaah’ .
At about three months of age your baby will start to babble a jumble of repeated consonant sounds, such as. ‘Kaka’ or ‘Gaga’ or ‘Baba’. Some little ones might even mutter ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’, although they won’t necessarily mean ‘Mummy’ or ‘Daddy’ just yet; they’re just experimenting with noises.
By the age of around nine months babies start to make more complex babbling sounds. They are usually able to recognise their native language around this age. Although they probably won’t be using any words yet, they’ll have mastered the rhythm and tone of real speech. Once they say their first word, it quickly develops into a few basic words, through to more complex tw0 or three word sentences. Their toddler vocabulary will accelerate quite quickly.
Between 9 and 18 months of age there’s a rapid development in infants’ processing skills which usually means a big improvement in their speech. A few words will quickly grow to become a generous vocabulary that will include two-word phrases. This coincides with the important developmental skill of pointing. When a baby points, it’s a way of asking, ‘What’s that?’
A fun and favorite way to promote your child’s language development is to:
- Point to and name objects in your home
- Sing songs, repeatedly
- Repeat the names of family members
- Point to and name animals
- Find and name body parts.
By the time a baby is 2 years old, language learning seems to progress really fast. We could talk about a language explosion. Babies might even raise their voices at the end of words, to indicate a question. That kind of speech milestone is one you cannot miss when a child achieves it.
Other common first words your baby might say are ‘Bye bye’, ‘All gone’, the word you use for breastfeeding and the names of favorite foods.
How can I teach my baby to talk?
You’ve been teaching your baby to talk ever since the first time you said hello. In fact, research shows language acquisition and a baby’s understanding of language begins in the womb.
To help with your child’s speech development, you should:
Babies Start Talking #1. Communicate early
Long before babies speak their first words, they are communicating with you. They might lift their arms to be picked up, shake their head for no, or reach for a toy they want. Acknowledge and respond to this early communication to encourage your children to improve their communicative abilities. Being understood is the motivation for infants to learn new ways to communicate.
Babies Start Talking #2. Be a gasbag
Babies learn through listening, so chatter away and your baby’s speech and language skills will blossom. Keep up an ongoing narrative as you go about your everyday business. Tell baby what everything is, and what you’re doing. The more words babies hear, the more words they will understand. Point out things of interest as you walk around, and tell your baby about your day.
Babies Start Talking #3. Talk often
The more you talk to your baby, the more words your baby will be exposed to. If you’re out and about, carry your baby in a sling on your front, or use a parent-facing stroller to make sure you can keep communication lines open. Putting babies in forward-facing strollers restricts communication. Not only will they unable to see their parents, they probably won’t hear what they’re saying either.
Research has consistently shown that it’s important to talk directly to children, rather than just expose them to talking.
‘Infants who hear more talk have more opportunities to interpret language and to exercise skills such as segmenting speech and accessing lexical representations that are vital to word learning (Saffran, Newport, & Aslin, 1996; Gershkoff-Stowe, 2002).
‘As a result, infants with more exposure to child-directed speech are faster and more accurate to orient to familiar words in real-time, enabling them to learn new words more quickly and facilitating rapid vocabulary growth’.
Babies Start Talking #4. Read books
Reading is the perfect way to help your baby start talking, learn language skills and build vocabulary. Reading to your baby from birth is a great way to get into this habit. Your newborn won’t understand what you’re saying, but will feel comforted by your voice. As babies get older, they begin to understand the stories, and will add to their vocabulary through listening to what’s being read.
Babies Start Talking #5. Sing
Singing nursery rhymes, action songs and lullabies to your baby is beneficial for language development. Your baby loves the sound of your voice (no matter how bad it is), and will enjoy repeating any accompanying actions. You might find as well as repeating actions, your baby will try to join in with the singing.
Babies Start Talking #6. Babble
When your baby babbles to you, babble back. Repeat the sounds and rhythm of those noises, and engage in a game of copycat. Your baby will love having your full attention, playing and mimicking you. Introduce new sounds for your child to imitate, too, such as blowing raspberries and humming.
Babies Start Talking #7. Listen
When babies are trying to communicate, it’s important they have their parents’ full attention. Not only does this help develop the necessary confidence to learn to talk, but it also teaches them how to be good listeners.
Babies Start Talking #8. Elaborate
When your child is able to communicate using one word, respond by using full sentences. If the child uses ‘baby talk’, you should continue to use proper words. Although your baby might not speak in full sentences or say the proper words yet, you’ll be creating a learning opportunity by responding correctly.
People naturally tend to speak to babies in a higher pitch and with a louder tone but it’s important to use real words with your child and to avoid ‘baby talk’ when you communicate.
Babies Start Talking #9. Take turns
Conversation is all about taking turns, so engage your child in turn-taking games such as peek-a-boo, from a young age.
When you talk to your baby, take pauses as you do in a two-way conversation with another person. This is baby’s first exposure to how conversation works.
Things to avoid
- Background noise. Babies are easily distracted. Switch off the TV and radio, and let your baby focus on what you’re saying
- Limit screen time. Experts argue children under the age of two shouldn’t watch TV. Research has found watching TV can have a detrimental effect on language development
- Correcting them. As babies learn new words, they’re bound to make a few mistakes. They might call all birds ‘dodos’, or refer to all children as ‘boys’. In time, through listening to you and other people talk, they’ll learn to differentiate between the various subcategories. For now, don’t correct them too often, as it can be discouraging.
When to worry. What are signs of speech delays?
The next question after ‘When do babies start talking?’ is often ‘When should I worry about my baby not talking?’
All children develop at different rates. If you’re concerned your child isn’t meeting language milestones, speak to your healthcare provider. The sooner a child’s speech delay or hearing problem is identified, the sooner treatment can begin with a speech-language pathologist. Early intervention is key.
Reasons for a speech delay:
- Hearing problems
- Frequent ear infections
- Autism spectrum disorder.
Parents should contact their healthcare provider if:
- Babies aren’t attempting to make sounds, won’t make eye contact with you, or don’t respond to their name by six months of age
- Their baby doesn’t babble at nine months
- Their child can’t follow simple instructions or speaks only in single words by age 2
You might be referred to a speech-language pathologist for assessment and follow-up intervention.
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