Look Who’s Talking: Key Speech Development Milestones

Look Who’s Talking: Key Speech Development Milestones

The first intelligible words uttered from a baby’s mouth provoke profound joy in the parent; it’s a major developmental milestone that rivals the first steps. Later, the baby’s babbles evolve into multi-word sentences as they string together more complex thoughts, prompting the parent to feel immensely proud of their linguistic prowess.

But how long does the magical process of speech development take? And when will my baby blurt out those precious first words?

Today we’re going to cover everything you need to know about a baby’s linguistic development. We’ll examine how the whole process works, when to expect certain milestones, how you can help push along the process, and whether or not you need to worry about a developmental delay.

When Will My Baby Start To Talk?

Learning to talk takes a long time, which is hardly surprising given the complexity that verbal communication entails.

Luckily, however, a baby’s brain is a language learning machine capable of soaking up stimuli at breakneck speed. Babies are adept at matching objects with words, and their muscles quickly become agile enough to twist and contort their mouths to mimic new sounds. Imagine if we adults had to learn how to speak again from scratch: we certainly wouldn’t be as efficient as our babies.

Most babies manage to babble in their first year of life. Later, sometime between 12 and 14 months, the majority succeed in stringing together those magical first words.

Can you guess what the most common first words are? “Mama” and “dada,” of course—although “hi,” “book,” “ball,” “doggie,” and “baby” are common as well.

Not all babies learn at the same rate. Girls tend to master speech faster than boys, and some babies are just better linguists than others.

What Are the Key Speech Development Milestones?

There’s much more to speech development than the baby’s first words. A baby will begin learning how communication works while still in the womb, and their skills will rapidly improve during the early formative years.

Let’s take a look at the core language development milestones so you can get a rough idea of how your baby is progressing against the norm.

In Utero

As crazy as it may seem, research has shown babies are capable of recognizing sounds and words during the third trimester of pregnancy. The theory, known as fetal development, states that babies begin to familiarize themselves with the parent’s native language while still in the womb (so be careful what you say around an expecting mother!).

0—3 Months

Every baby’s first communication is to cry, which occurs the very moment it leaves the womb. And many babies continue communicating this way right throughout their developmental years—often loudly, in a high pitch, and at great length. Not all cries are the same, however, as babies use varying tempos—from a whimper to a piercing shriek—to express different feelings.

A baby begins honing its non-verbal communication skills almost immediately upon leaving the womb. Within days, you’ll notice how your baby starts to grimace, squirm, stretch, and flail. These aren’t just random movements, as the baby is learning to express feelings such as hunger, fear, frustration, and cold. With time, you’ll learn to interpret these movements (and the different kinds of crying) so you can respond accordingly.

A baby begins developing its verbal skills in the first three months, primarily by listening to and observing the outside world. Expect your baby to hear your voice, study how your lips move when you talk, and react to music or sounds around the home. Studies have found babies prefer the sound of a female voice, especially one they recognize from the womb—so it’s little wonder babies have such an immediate and powerful bond with their mothers.

4—6 Months

At this stage, babies start developing an adorable repertoire of babbles: coos, sighs, and gurgles. Early babbling sounds consist of a random assortment of consonants—whatever the baby likes the sound of. They’ll play around with vocalizations and find creative ways to make funny sounds by contorting their tongue and vocal cords.

And with so many different combinations blurted out every day, chances are you’ll eventually hear your baby say something that sounds like “mama” or “dada.” But as heart-warming as the moment may be, these normally aren’t real words—the baby is merely experimenting with vocalization.

As an interesting aside, early babbling sounds almost identical between different languages.

7—12 Months

Babies build upon their babbling skills towards the end of the first year of life. At this stage, they’ll be able to comprehend basic phrases like “bye-bye.” You’ll notice your baby is now beginning to use a broad array of sounds and can vocalize in various tones. It will continue listening, learning, and experimenting.

13—18 Months

During this period, a baby will probably say “mama” for the first time—and this time, they’ll know exactly what the phrase means!

Babies develop their linguistic skills rapidly at this stage, and begin to learn the importance of inflection, tone, and vocabulary to communicate their needs. Listening skills also skyrocket, with many babies able to comprehend and obey simple commands.

19—24 Months

Babies begin bolstering their vocabulary during this developmental phase, with most able to employ up to 50 different words.  Babies generally understand much more than they say, so don’t stop filling their noggins with communicative tidbits each day.

It’s also around this time, particularly closer to the two-year mark, that a baby will begin stringing simple sentences together, typically between two and four words. They’ll readily repeat words and sounds, often with endearing mispronunciations like “daw” instead of “dog.”

2—3 Years

In their second year of life, your baby will begin to get the hang of pronouns and learn to properly use “I,” “you,” or “me.” And, with practice, they’ll figure out how to put these into simple sentences such as “I eat now.”

Vocabulary will improve, and your baby will become increasingly conversational. Abstract thoughts such as emotions, prepositions, and symbols will find their way into their lexicon, alongside the ability to recognize and name physical objects such as “cup” or “bottle.” Towards the end of the third year, your baby’s language skills will have become quite sophisticated, and they’ll understand and respond to complex commands.

What Can I Do to Help My Baby Learn to Talk?

We all want the best for our little ones. And the good news is there are plenty of things a parent can do to kick-start their baby’s communication skills. Let’s break down the best things you can do to turn your tiny darling into a smooth talker from the get-go.

Engage in Conversation

Babies learn more about linguistics from their parents than any other source of stimuli, so you must take a proactive approach by engaging with your child.

Nevertheless, it’s not necessary to be a non-stop chatterbox; all you need to do is converse with your child whenever you’re together, and you’ve got the time. Talk about what you’re both doing, make observations about the world around you, and ask questions about simple things. Remember to leave pauses between different ideas to give the baby time to process what you’re saying.

Although it might be tempting to dumb-down your speech into a series of cutesy babbles, it’s more productive to speak in full, grammatically correct sentences.

Read to Your Baby

Reading age-appropriate literature out loud to your child is an excellent way to enhance their language skills, including vocabulary, sentence structure, and pronunciation. Babies love hearing the sound of their parents’ voices, and toddlers relish the chance to admire colorful pictures.

You’ll also be teaching them how to understand the flow of a story, and perhaps even instilling a passion for literature from a young age.

Listen and Respond

A baby will be much more motivated to develop its language skills if it receives positive feedback from the most influential people in their life—the parents.

Make an effort to actively listen to what your baby is saying and respond to their ideas to keep the conversation flowing. If your baby asks a question, give them an answer. If they make a statement, provide a response.

Listening and responding to a baby’s communication not only helps hone their language skills, but it builds self-esteem and encourages them to keep practicing as well.

Repeat Words

Babies love repetition, and saying words in context over and over again is a superb way to solidify their vocabulary and encourage two-way conversation.

You can also use the repetition technique to correct pronunciation. For example, when your baby says, “daw,” you could respond with the correctly spoken “dog.” Better yet, you can repeat words and expand them into longer and more complex sentences. Say your baby says “dog,” you could respond with, “a big brown dog.”

Recognize Achievements

Much like adults, babies love hearing positive feedback for their accomplishments. And the more positive and appreciative you are of their efforts, the more motivated the baby will be to continue.

Remember to smile, clap, and praise your baby frequently when they start forming complex sentences and overcoming other linguistic hurdles.

Express Interest

In addition to praising your baby for a job well done, make an effort to express interest in their development through your body language.

Smile, laugh and make eye contact with your little one every chance you get. The more attention you show them when they speak, the faster they’ll progress in their language learning quest.

Elaborate on Everything

Building upon simple commands is a great way to teach a baby about grammar and vocabulary. If your baby leans over the table and says, “bottle,” you might respond by asking, “do you want the bottle?”

Sooner or later, your baby will work out what the question means from the context and answer in the affirmative.

Narrate Your Life

Babies learn to speak by analyzing the context of what they’re observing. If you do an out-loud narration of everything you’re doing, your baby will quickly learn to associate new words with the relevant object or action. Try using something similar to the following examples to narrate your everyday life:

  • “I’m petting the dog.”
  • “I’m pouring the milk in the bottle.”

Of course, you need to be within eyesight of the baby for this technique to work.

Play With Your Child

Take the time to play with your baby, whether with age-appropriate toys or simple word games. Use the context of each situation to teach new words, saying things like “this train is red” at an opportune time.

It can help t buy baby toys and games that are specially designed to hone language skills. Although these kinds of toys are a useful way of imbuing playtime with language learning, they don’t substitute for one-on-one interaction with your child on their own.

If you’ve got multiple young children, encourage them to play together so they can practice talking while you take a break. Another popular option is to arrange play dates with a close friend, which helps them develop social skills at the same time.

Sing Nursery Rhymes

Babies love listening to nursery rhymes, especially when the parent belts them out in a soothing sing-song melody. And a nursery rhyme doesn’t only serve as entertainment or a short-cut to bedtime—you can use these songs to build upon their listening skills as well.

Most young children quickly work out their favorite nursery rhymes and insist on hearing them time and time again. Do try to throw a few novel tunes into the mix, though, to introduce new words and phrases over time.

What Can I Avoid Doing to Help My Baby Learn to Talk?

Now that you’re up to speed with all the things you should do to fast-track your baby’s language skills, let’s take a look at the things you shouldn’t do.

Don’t Speak to Your Baby in a Noisy Environment

Like small children of all ages, babies are prone to distraction, so it’s never a good idea to have background noise if you want them to pay attention to you. When it comes time to engage in conversation, switch off the TV so your baby can focus on every word you say.

Don’t Constantly Correct Your Baby for Minor Mistakes

Babies have a lot to learn, so it’s natural they’ll make mistakes along the way. Correcting their speech every time they stuff up will leave a baby feeling discouraged, so it’s best to let the odd minor error pass you by. By listening to you and others around you, they’ll eventually work out the correct way to use all their exciting new words.

Don’t Let Them Watch Too Much TV

Being a parent can be exhausting, and sometimes TV can provide precious respite. Some experts argue no children under two should watch TV at all, although others are a bit more lenient. Whichever side of the debate you’re on, be sure to limit screen time, because excessive TV has been shown to impede the language learning process. The same applies to iPads and other touch-screen electronics.

Should I Worry About My Baby’s Speech Development?

Babies develop at different rates, so there’s little point obsessing over how your child is tracking against the norm. So long as your baby keeps expanding their linguistic skills, you’ve likely got nothing to worry about.

However, if your baby falls drastically behind the curve, this could be the sign of a physiological or developmental disorder.

Seek advice from a pediatrician if you observe any of the following:

  • Your baby doesn’t make sounds, eye contact, or respond within six months
  • Your baby doesn’t start to babble within nine months
  • Your child can’t form simple sentences or follow instructions within two years

These issues can be signs of a speech delay, which is when a child is unnaturally slow at developing their speaking skills. Depending on the root cause, a speech delay may be rectified with therapy, so it’s crucial to get a diagnosis early on in the game. Other more severe development disorders that can affect a baby’s language learning abilities include autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disorders, or hearing impairments.

What Can I Do If My Baby Isn’t Speaking Properly?

If you have reason to suspect your baby has a developmental disorder or speech delay, book a consultation with your pediatrician, who will refer you to the relevant specialist.

A range of treatments and tests may follow, depending on the disorder in question. Hearing screenings, speech-language pathology sessions, and developmental tests can determine if a baby suffers from a disorder and help to resolve the problem.

Waiting for Your Baby to Talk: Final Words

Hearing your baby bust out its precious first words is a memorable moment for any parent to experience, perhaps as exciting as watching them take their very first steps. For most babies, the first real words—not inconsequential babbles—occur around their first birthday, typically between 11 and 14 months.

Some babies don’t develop as quickly as others, however, so there’s usually no need to freak out if your bub is a few months behind schedule.