It’s so exciting to watch your baby learn new skills! Most parents eagerly await their child’s first word, and it’s easy to worry if your baby isn’t talking as soon as you want him to. Some children talk sooner than others, and most of the time, there’s no cause for concern. Are you a new mother wondering when that first word will happen? Read on to learn what to expect as your child learns to use her voice.
Know the speech development milestones
Babies follow a predictable pattern of speech development. While not every baby hits every milestone at exactly the same age, these benchmarks will give you an idea of what to expect.
The first several months
From birth to three months, babies should react to sounds and smile at voices. Before three months, most babies don’t make any sounds of their own (except for crying).
Around three months, most babies start to make “cooing” sounds or vocalization without consonants. It may almost sound like your baby is singing, and this cooing behavior generally happens when your baby is content.
By six months, you’ll start to hear more “babble” and less cooing. Your baby’s babble sounds will include some consonants and random syllables, and likely these sounds won’t make much sense. This is fine! Your baby hasn’t connected meaning to language yet.
At nine months, most babies understand a few basic words like “no” and “bye-bye”. Understanding doesn’t necessarily mean speaking, though. Your baby may demonstrate understanding by stopping what he’s doing when you say “no”, or waving at you when you say “bye-bye”. He’ll probably know his name by now, and he’ll look at you when you say it. His babbling will continue, and he’ll probably babble to himself when he’s alone in his crib.
Between 12 and 17 months, you can expect your baby to start attaching meaning to the sounds she’s making. During this time, you’ll probably hear her say “mama” (in reference to you!) for the first time. Many babies do say “mama” or “dada” when they’re experimenting with sounds during the babbling stage (around six months), but it’s really just that – babbling.
Around 18 months, most babies start to enjoy repeating the words that they hear. They may not pronounce them perfectly, but the more they practice, the better they get. You’ll probably hear your baby leaving the ending consonants off of words for a while. The cat will be “cah” and the dog will be “daw”. Your little one will start attempting the names of siblings, stuffed animals, and other people in his life.
By two years of age, babies begin to put together short sentences. “Short” may mean just two or three words, and correct grammar is unlikely! At this developmental stage, she’s learning that words have meaning when you put them together. She may recognize and point out “mama shoe” or note that her father has gone to work by saying, “dada car”.
By age three, your baby’s vocabulary should be expanding rapidly enough that you’ve lost count of how many words he knows. He’ll get better and better at communicating exactly what he means.
What if your baby isn’t meeting these speech milestones?
Don’t panic. Each child grows differently and may reach these milestones a little bit early or a little bit late. Discuss your child’s progress with your pediatrician on your next visit. If your child’s speech is developing more slowly than expected, your doctor may run tests to screen for some of the more common causes of slow speech development.
Hearing impairment almost always slows down a child’s speech development. Signs that your child has hearing loss may appear before you can tell that her speech development is slow, though. She may not be startled by loud noises, and she may not have a physical response (like smiling or waving her hands in the air) when an adult speaks to her. Talk to your pediatrician if you notice this lack of responsiveness in your baby.
If hearing impairment is ruled out, your pediatrician may refer you to a speech-language pathologist (SLP). An SLP can help determine the cause of slow speech development by testing for speech and language disorders. This kind of specialist can also determine whether your child has any physical abnormalities in his mouth, tongue, or vocal cords that make it difficult to speak.
When hearing impairment and other speech/language issues are not the cause of slow speech development, your doctor may check for cognitive delays or disorders.
How to help your child learn to speak
Children learn to speak by watching and listening to the people with whom they spend the most time. You can help your child learn to speak by doing a few simple things on a regular basis.
Read aloud to your child on a daily basis. Many parents include reading aloud in their child’s bedtime routine every night. Interact with your child and ask questions as you’re reading (“Do you see the bunny?” “Can you point to the truck?” “What color is that flower?”) PBS KIDS 100 Phrases for Toddlers: First Words and Phrases for 2-3 Year-Olds is a fantastic book that makes it easy to interact with your toddler while you’re reading. Traditional story books work just fine, too – the most important thing is that your child is hearing language and interacting with you.
Narrate what you’re doing
As you go through your day with your baby, tell her what you’re doing. “Let’s find your yellow shirt. Here it is! Now let’s put your shoes on. We’re going to go to the grocery store and pick up a few things for dinner.” This kind of one-sided conversation may feel silly to you at first, but your baby is learning from every word that you say.
Praise your child
Celebrate every attempt to speak that your child makes. Encourage him to use his words whenever possible, and praise him when he does. Respond with words of your own so that your baby gets used to what a conversation feels like.
Keep the speech development milestones in mind, and help your baby learn to speak with books, verbal interaction, and lots of praise. Your pediatrician can address any concerns you have about your baby’s speech development and can help diagnose any language problems that your child is encountering. Before you know it, your child will be having conversations with you!