There are a few firsts you absolutely don’t want to miss in your baby’s life. The first gummy smile, the beautiful sound of her first twinkly giggle, her first steps to independence… and, of course, the moment she utters her first word. You’ve probably been longing for your baby to talk ever since that first night in hospital, when she cried but couldn’t tell you what was wrong. As you frantically tried to feed her, rock her and change her nappy simultaneously, you probably wished she could just talk and tell you what was wrong. So, when do babies start talking?
When do babies start talking?
Your child has been communicating with you ever since you first laid eyes on her. She has been crying when unhappy, giggling with laughter and pointing to things she wants for a while now, but you’re probably keen for her to get to the next level.
At what age do babies talk?
Learning to talk is a slow process. It can take a long time to establish a large enough vocabulary for meaningful conversations.
Most babies say their first words between 11 and 14 months of age. Popular first words include ‘mama’ and ‘dada’, but could be any word he or she has heard often enough.
By 16 months, girls can say an average of 50 words, and boys have a vocabulary of around 30. At this stage in their language development, it is common for boys to be two months behind their female peers.
By her second birthday, your 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, she will be speaking in more complicated sentences and will be able to hold 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 say their first words long before their first birthday, but 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 sounds like “oooh” and “aaah” being repeated. When she is around three months old, she will start to babble a jumble of repeated sounds, ‘kaka’ or ‘gaga’ for example. 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 will start making more complex babbling sounds. Although she probably won’t be using any words yet, she will have mastered the rhythm and tone of real speech. Once she says her first word, you may find her vocabulary accelerates quite quickly. By the time she is 18 months old, she will even raise her voice at the end of words to indicate a question.
How can I teach my baby to talk?
You have been teaching your baby to talk ever since the first time you said hello to her. In fact, some experts think a baby’s understanding of language begins in the womb. Each day when you talk, she is learning new words, understanding what they mean and, perhaps, repeating sounds herself. To help your baby learn to talk, you should:
- #1: Communicate early – long before your baby can vocalise her wants, she is communicating with you. She may lift her arms to be picked up, shake her head for no, or point at a toy she wants. Acknowledge and respond to this early communication to encourage your child to improve her communicative abilities. Being understood is motivation for her to learn new ways to communicate.
- #2: Be a gasbag – babies learn through listening, so chatter away. Narrate to your baby as you go about your daily business. Tell her what everything is, and what you are doing. The more words she hears, the more words she will 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 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 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. A study found it was important to have talk directed to the child rather than just being exposed 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 build her vocabulary. Reading to your baby from birth is a great way to get into this habit. Of course, your newborn baby won’t understand what you are saying, but she will feel comforted by your voice. As she gets older, she will begin to understand the stories, and will add to her vocabulary through listening to you read. Reading is a great way to improve language even as an adult, so it’s great to foster a love of books that will last your baby into adulthood.
- #5: Sing – nursery rhymes, action songs and lullabies are all great things to sing to your baby. She will love the sound of your voice (no matter how bad it is), and will enjoy repeating any accompanying actions. You may find that, as well as repeating actions, your baby tries to join in with the singing.
- #6: Babble – when your baby babbles to you, babble back. Repeat the sounds and rhythm of her noises, and engage in a game of copycats. Your baby will love having your full attention, playing and mimicking you. Introduce new sounds for your child to intimidate too, such as blowing raspberries and humming.
- #7: Listen – when your baby is trying to communicate with you, give her your full attention. Not only will this help her develop the confidence to learn to talk, it will also teach her how to be a good listener.
- #8: Elaborate – when your child is able to communicate using one words, ensure you respond back to her in full sentences. If she uses ‘baby talk’, you should continue to use proper words. While she may not yet be able to speak in full sentences or say the proper words, you will be creating a learning opportunity by responding correctly.
- #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.
Things to avoid when a baby is learning to talk
- Background noise – babies are easily distracted, so switch off the TV and radio, and let your baby focus on what you’re saying.
- Limit screen time – experts argue that children under the age of two shouldn’t watch TV. Research has found that watching TV can have a detrimental effect on language development.
- Correction – as your baby learns new words, she is 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 will learn to differentiate between the different subcategories, but for now, don’t correct her too often as it can be discouraging.
When to worry about talking
If you are concerned about your child’s speech development, you should speak to your healthcare provider. The sooner a language delay or hearing problem is identified, the sooner treatment can begin. You should contact your healthcare provider if:
- Your baby isn’t attempting to make sounds, will not 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 her second birthday
All children develop at different rates, but if you are worried, it is always worth seeking help. If your healthcare provider shares your concerns, you will be referred to a specialist.