Babies start learning to talk from the moment they hear your voice. Here's how and when babies learn to talk, milestones to look out for in your child’s first three years, and how to encourage their speech development.
How do babies learn to talk?
Babies learn to talk by listening to the voices of people around them, learning what different words mean when you and other family members talk to them, and trying to imitate what they hear.
They'll start with "baby talk," or coos and gurgles, then start to play around with sound-based words like "gaga" and "dada,"
Around 12 months of age, they'll start to use first words consistently, to refer to the people, animals, and objects around them.
Within their second and third years, they'll build their speaking vocabulary at a rapid pace, and start to string words together. All of this happens thanks to continued listening and learning from you!
Baby's speech and language milestones: Through the months
When will baby say their first words?
Every baby is different in their development, and speech development is no exception. So the timing of that exciting milestone can vary from baby to baby.
There are certain age windows, though, where babies usually reach different speech milestones.
If you're concerned because baby isn't reaching certain milestones on this list within the usual window, consult your pediatrician. The earlier baby can get the needed help, the better.
At 0-3 months:
- Listens and turns towards your voice, as well as other voices they hear
- Knows parents' and/or caregivers' voices
- Recognizes when you talk to them
- Starts to coo, gurgle, and make simple vowel sounds
- This is to try to imitate your speech, as well as express happiness
At 3-6 months:
- May try to imitate the spoken sounds you make with their gurgling and cooing
- Will use lots of "p," "b," and "m" sounds
- Starts to absorb how people talk to each other
- Makes lots of different "happy" and "not happy" sounds
At 6-9 months:
- Around the 6 month mark, starts to babble (use sound-words, like "gaga," "baba" or even "mama" or "dada")
- But won't use sound-words consistently for specific people, animals and objects yet --- they're just experimenting
- Recognizes and responds to their name
- Knows the difference between happy and upset voices
- And will respond accordingly (smiling at happy voices, getting upset at sad or angry voices)
- Will start to use tone in their own babbling, to show whether they are happy or upset
At 9-12 months:
- Starts to understand and respond to basic words (such as "yes," "no," "hi," "bye-bye," "Mommy," "Daddy")
- Recognizes words for familiar people and objects ("Mommy," "Daddy," "book," "Teddy")
- May start to experiment with more consonants
- May start to use more tones of voice
- Will start to tell you what they want with pointing, other motions and babbling
- For instance, they may point to or grab a toy, and vocalize to show they want it.
- Or, they may lift up their arms and look at you to show that they want you to lift them up.
- Says their first words!
- Will use words and sound-words consistently to identify people, animals, and objects around them
- Although your little one says only a few clear words at this point, they understand the meaning of around 25 words by this age
At 15-18 months:
- Responds to, or at least understands, simple requests ("please put it down," "show me your fingers," "give Teddy")
- Is building their understanding and vocabulary --- will say around 10 words and understand around 50, with more added each month
- Will use more complex gestures, along with their words, to communicate with you and make requests
At 18-23 months:
- Can say even more simple words than before
- Can point to several people, animals, body parts and objects at your request ("Where is doggie?")
- May repeat some words (even those not currently in their vocabulary) when they hear you say them
- Will often leave out ending or beginning consonants of new words
Around 2 years of age:
- Will start to string words together in short phrases (2-3 words, such as "bye-bye Daddy" or "want milk")
- Can follow spoken directions
- Starts to pretend play, another way to foster language development
Around 2 ½ years of age:
- Will string more words together in simple sentences
- Starts to understand more abstract word-ideas like "now" and "mine,"
- Starts to learn spatial words like "out" and "in," and feeling words like "happy" and "sad"
- Continues to rapidly expand their vocabulary
- Can answer simple questions with words ("where is Teddy?")
By 3 years of age:
- Will string sentences together that include subject nouns, verbs, and locations (but not words like "I," "she," "it," and "the")
- Can answer more complex questions
- Builds understanding of more abstract words and feelings
- Starts to use adjectives ("tall," "red)
- Understands "opposite" words like "big" vs. "little"
Watch this video with Lisa Shulman, M.D. from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to learn more about typical communication milestones for babies and toddlers.
How to encourage baby's speech: The first 3 years
In the womb
- Talk to and sing to baby --- they can hear you!
- Talk to and sing to baby
- Talk to others when baby is around. They won't understand you, but will enjoy the sound of your voice
- Read to baby --- it's never too early to start!
- Smile at baby when they gurgle or coo
- Give baby quiet time, with no "surrounding" noises, so baby can make noises by themself
- Keep talking, singing, and reading to baby
- Make eye contact and smile at baby when they make sounds
- Imitate baby's sounds, to teach them the simple "back and forth" of talking
- Use short words, then pause to give baby a chance to respond, so they can learn about the "back and forth" of talking
- If baby tries to imitate the sound or word you say, repeat the word
- Introduce the words for common people, animals, and objects, by pointing to them or holding them up as you say the word
- Give baby quiet time, with no "surrounding" noises, so baby can make noises by themself
- Continue talking and reading to baby
- Use short words, then pause for baby to respond, so they can learn about the "back and forth" of talking
- Play fun language games like "Patty cake" and "Peek-a-boo"
- Sing fun nursery rhyme songs like "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Old MacDonald"
- Smile at baby, respond, and praise baby when they use baby talk
- Use many simple words to identify everyday people, animals, and objects throughout the day
- Ask baby simple questions about where people and objects are. See if baby responds, and then point to the person or object you were looking for.
- Describe baby's favorite toys as you hand them the toys ("Red train's coming, choo choo!" Or "feel how soft Teddy is.")
- Continue to use all the same tips we listed under 6-9 months
- Get excited when baby responds to basic words
- Give baby what they request when they point and vocalize --- but elaborate: "Do you want the banana? Yum! That banana tastes good!"
- Use short, simple and correct words to respond to any vocalizing where you can tell what they're trying to say (for instance, say "bottle" when they say "baba" and their attention is on the bottle)
- Talk about what you're doing during baby's routines: "I'm putting on your shirt!" "Time to go outside!" "I'm washing your tummy!" "Time to eat the oatmeal!"
- Continue to talk, sing and read to your little one, including using fun nursery rhymes and songs
- Smile, clap, and react with delight when your little one uses first words to identify something or someone!
- Respond in detail when this happens ("You see kitty! She's gray and so soft!")
- When your little one says a word, expand. For instance, if they say "bear," you can say "That's your brown, fuzzy bear!"
- Let your child guide what you talk about. Listen to them, then expand.
- Name things you use, play with, or encounter: "cup," "milk," "car," etc. Give your little one time to say the names after you.
- Offer your child simple choices in conversation: "Do you want peaches or pears?" "Which PJs will you pick for bed?" or "Do you want the car or the train?"
- Point out and ask questions about pictures in favorite books: "What's that?" Give your little one time to say the names of things in the pictures.
- Introduce simple pretend play with stuffed animals or dolls, where the toys join your playtime. Have conversations: "Teddy wants to play. Can Teddy push the train?"
- Ask your child to point to different body parts (or other familiar objects in their environment)
- Ask your child to give you certain toys
- When your little one points to or gives you something on their own, talk about the object in detail: "Thank you! That's the cow. Look at the black and white spots on the cow!"
- Continue to offer simple choices
- Continue to ask your child to name objects in books' pictures
- Continue to let your little one guide what you talk about, and then expand on the words they say
- Point out and name more things that you encounter (even if you don't see them as often)
- Encourage more complex pretend play, where you talk about what you're doing (ex. feed the animals, give dolly a bath, talk on the toy phone)
- Ask your child to do simple "helping" tasks ("Bring me the cup," "Give me your coat," "pick up your train")
- Give your child time to talk with other family members, such as grandparents
- Ask your child to point to what they see in pictures as you read to them
- Teach simple nursery rhymes and songs
- Ask your toddler about numbers, sizes and shapes of things the two of you encounter
- Ask open-ended questions that are more complex: "Look, there are ducks walking! How many ducks? Where are the ducks going?"
- Suggest answers or make questions simpler if needed: "I see six little ducks! Are they going to the pond or the tree?"
- Encourage your child to retell parts of their favorite books: "What happened to Curious George?"
- Expose your little one to even more books: take your little one to the library, and have them enjoy storytime (in person and/or virtual).
- Continue to ask your child questions about what you read together, or what others read to them.
- Make sure your child knows how to say their first and last name
- Continue to pretend-play out loud with your child frequently, including acting out stories or pretending to be characters from favorite books
Best of luck as you help your child on this exciting journey of speech and language!
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