There are a few firsts you absolutely don’t want to miss in your baby’s life. Her first smile, her first steps, and her 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 her. She’s been crying when unhappy, making a range of facial expressions, and reaching for things she wants for a while now.
But you’re probably keen on her language skills to get to the next level.
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.
Popular first words include ‘mama’ and ‘dada’, but she may say any word she has heard often enough.
By 16 months, girls can say an average of 50 words, and boys have a vocabulary of around 30. It’s common for boys to be two months behind their female peers.
A 2 year old baby will know up to 200 words – although may not use all of these. She may also be able to speak in two or three-word sentences such as “more banana”.
By her third birthday, her further developed vocabulary will allow her to communicate with more complicated sentences, and she’ll be able to have more advanced conversations with you.
How will my baby learn to talk?
To learn to talk, 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.
Some babies start talking long before their first birthday. Others take longer to develop control of their tongue and lips, 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 vowel sounds like “oooh” and “aaah” being repeated.
When she is around three months old, she’ll start to babble a jumble of repeated sounds, e.g. ‘kaka’ or ‘gaga’ or ‘ba ba’. She may even mutter ‘mama’ or ‘dada’, although she won’t mean ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’ just yet, she’s just experimenting with noises.
By the age of around nine months, she’ll start making more complex babbling sounds. Although she probably won’t be using any words yet, she’ll have mastered the rhythm and tone of real speech. Once she says her first word, you may find her vocabulary accelerates quite quickly.
Between nine and 18 months of age there’s usually a big increase in the number of words she learns. This coincides with the important developmental skill of pointing. Pointing is her way of asking, “what’s that?”
A fun and favourite wait to promote your child’s language development is to:
- Pointing to and naming objects in your home
- Repeating the names of family members
- Pointing to and naming animals
- Finding and naming body parts.
By the time she’s 18 months old, she’ll even raise her voice at the end of words, to indicate a question.
Other common first words she may say are “bye bye”, “all gone”, the word you use for breastfeeding, and 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 to her. In fact, research shows language acquisition and a baby’s understanding of language begins in the womb.
To help your baby talk, you should:
#1: Communicate early
Long before your baby’s first words, she’s communicating with you. She may lift her arms to be picked up, shake her head for no, or reach for a toy she wants. Acknowledge and respond to this early communication to encourage your child to improve her communicative abilities. Being understood is the motivation for her to learn new ways to communicate.
#2: Be a gasbag
Babies learn through listening, so chatter away and her speech and language skills will blossom. Narrate to your baby as you go about your everyday business. Tell her what everything is, and what you’re doing. The more words she hears, the more words she’ll understand. Point out things of interest as you walk around, and tell her about your day.
#3: Talk often
The more you talk to your baby, the more words she’ll 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 ensure you can keep communication lines open. Putting your baby in a forward-facing stroller restricts communication. Not only will she be unable to see you, she probably won’t hear what you’re saying either.
Studies have found it’s important to talk directly to the child, 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.”
#4: Read books
Reading is the perfect way to help your child learn language skills and build their 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 she’ll feel comforted by your voice. As she gets older, she’ll begin to understand the stories, and will add to her vocabulary through listening to you read.
Singing nursery rhymes, action songs and lullabies to your baby is beneficial for language development. She’ll love the sound of your voice (no matter how bad it is!), and enjoy repeating any accompanying actions. You may find as well as repeating actions, your baby tries to join in with the singing.
When your baby babbles to you, babble back. Repeat the sounds and rhythm of her 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.
When your baby’s trying to communicate with you, give her your full attention. Not only will this help her develop the confidence to learn to talk, but it’ll also teach her how to be a good listener.
When your child’s able to communicate using one word, respond back in full sentences. If she uses ‘baby talk’, you should continue to use proper words. While she may not speak in full sentences or say the proper words yet, you’ll be creating a learning opportunity by responding correctly.
While all people naturally speak in a higher pitch and with a louder tone to babies, it’s important to use real words with your child and not use ‘baby talk’ when you communicate.
#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 a conversation happens.
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 her – as your baby learns new words, she’s bound to make a few mistakes. She may call all birds ‘dodos’, or refer to all children as ‘boy’. In time, through listening to you and other people talk, she’ll learn to differentiate between the different subcategories. For now, don’t correct her too often as it can be discouraging.
When to worry
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 speech development 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.
Contact your healthcare provider if:
- Your baby isn’t attempting to make sounds, won’t make eye contact with you, or doesn’t respond to her name by six months
- Your baby doesn’t babble at nine months
- Your child can’t follow simple instructions or speaks in only single words by age 2.
You may be referred to a speech-language pathologist for assessment and follow up intervention.