A version of this post was originally published on February 10, 2020. It has been updated.
Your baby's first word is an exciting milestone, both for your child and for you. While you're eagerly listening for your child's first words, phrases and sentences, it can be hard not to feel a bit anxious, especially if it seems like other children the same age are talking before yours. When do babies start talking? Why isn't my child speaking yet? Are they developing normally? Am I doing something wrong?
Deep breaths, mama. Every child reaches verbal milestones at their own pace, and there's a wide range of "normal." In fact, most developmental milestones are simply general guidelines. Some babies will reach them early and some later.
While it's helpful to understand what's considered typical, if a child has not reached a milestone by a specified age, it does not mean there's an immediate cause for concern. It just means you'll want to keep a close eye on how your child's language is developing and consult your pediatrician or a pediatric speech pathologist with your observations.
"Every child's developmental timeline is different," shares Leanne Sherred, MS, CCC-SLP, and president and co-founder of Expressable, an online speech therapy platform. "And while you shouldn't stress over how your child's communication is progressing, you should be aware of it. It may be tempting to take a 'wait and see' approach to your child's speech and language development. However, by doing so you run the risk of having these issues persist and possibly worsen over time. That's why it's so important to speak with a speech-language pathologist if you suspect your child is not reaching age-appropriate goals," she notes.
Here's what to know about when babies start talking, including typical speech and language development milestones to watch for.
Receptive language and expressive language
As their speech and language skills develop, children should demonstrate progress in both receptive language (understanding what is being said to them) and expressive language (communicating wants, needs and thoughts). "It's vital that parents remain informed of typical speech milestones and whether their toddler is reaching communication goals expected of their age. These benchmarks can help parents determine if their baby is on the right track or may need some extra help," explains Sherred.
The guidelines below outline what's considered typical by age, according to the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association.
Language skills milestones for babies 0 to 3 months
It seems like newborns and young infants do little else other than eat, sleep and poop, but speech and language development actually begins the day a child is born, long before a baby's first words are ever spoken, notes Sherred. "Nonverbal communication milestones, like babbling, gesturing, smiling, waving, and even responding to sounds are all good indicators of how a child is progressing."
- Receptive language: Infants should show signs of hearing, such as recognizing a familiar person's voice and startling in response to loud sounds.
- Expressive language: Babies should also be testing their own voices by crying and cooing. As they grow, they will begin to react to different types of sounds and increase the variety of sounds they are making, especially when spoken to.
Language skills milestones for babies 3 to 12 months
So much can happen in this nine-month span. The best way to encourage speech and language development at this stage is all about face time and daily narration. "Children learn language by absorbing and interacting with the world around them—and no one spends more time with your child than their primary caregivers!" says Sherred. "Narrating your daily life is a great way to build a language-rich environment for your child. Talking about what you're doing out loud provides children with constant exposure to sights and sounds, and helps them start making connections between words and the real world."
- Receptive language: By 1 year, children should show signs of simple receptive language skills that include recognizing simple words for everyday items, reacting to their name, looking where you point, playing simple games and attending to short activities and stories.
- Expressive language: Children up to 1 year old often babble repetitive syllables such as "bababa" or "mamama" and use gestures to express what they want. Typically, they may try to repeat your words and may have a couple words in their vocabulary by the end of their first year.
Language skills milestones for babies 12 to 24 months
Regular routines involving play, reading and songs can foster a positive environment for language development.
- Receptive language: Between the ages of 1 to 2, children will begin to point to body parts when asked, respond to simple directions and questions, and point to familiar pictures and objects when asked.
- Expressive language: This is also the age when children begin to blossom with new words, especially around 18 months to 2 years. It is common for children to have 50 words or so by the time they are 2 years old. They will also begin to use two-word phrases and questions and may make animal sounds such as 'moo' and use pronouns, like 'mine'.
What if my child is not babbling or speaking as they should?
"Children don't come with a handbook, and knowing whether they're reaching communication milestones typical for their age isn't always apparent. If you notice your child is having difficulty expressing their wants and needs, or trailing behind other kids their age, you should speak with your pediatrician or a speech-language pathologist," Sherred says.
Many factors can contribute to a child's not reaching these speech milestones exactly on time, and it's important to remember that missing a developmental milestone doesn't necessarily indicate a speech-language disorder. However, if there is a delay, it is essential to speak to your pediatrician and a speech-language pathologist. For children who may not outgrow delayed speech, early intervention is critical. "Speech and language habits become more ingrained over time, and errors are harder to correct the longer they persist. The earlier your child receives intervention, the more progress they'll make towards their goals," Sherred explains.
If at any age, you have concerns your child is not hearing, speak to your pediatrician immediately. Difficulty hearing at a young age can significantly affect a child's development in various ways. Keep in mind children who pass hearing tests as babies can still develop hearing problems later.
What can I do to encourage my child's speech development?
There are multiple ways parents and caregivers can help nurture your child's speech development.
- Look at your child when you are talking. Children learn through observation and imitation. Let them see your face as you make early babbling sounds. Focus on early developing sounds such as b, p, d, m and vowels.
- Sing songs. Sing songs or rhymes regularly with your child, and encourage them to join in on the fun. "Children love music, especially when it involves movement, and it helps teach the rhythm of language," says Sherred.
- Respond to your baby. When your little one makes faces or sounds, respond to them by mimicking their actions or by having a simple conversation. Your child will learn that gestures and words receive reactions, an important concept for early communication skills.
- Take advantage of routine moments. Life with kids is busy, and it can be challenging to set aside time to work on communication. However, everyday routines can provide perfect opportunities. Talk to your child and practice speech and language skills by narrating your actions during daily activities such as diaper changes, feedings, shopping cart rides and baths.
- Modeling language. This simple technique involves using language that is one step above your child's current skill level, Sherred notes. "If your child is crying to communicate their wants and needs, you'd start gesturing or pointing to their desired item. If they're already gesturing but not vocalizing, you'd start using single words (like 'cup'). If they're using single words, you'd start combining two words into simple phrases (like 'juice please' or 'I want')."
- Purposeful playtime. Playing with your child is one of the most important things you can do to promote their speech and language development, Sherred says. "Playing is a routine that involves engaging in a two-way exchange, just like communication! When playing, start using toys for their intended purposes (like talking into a play phone), find opportunities to practice sounds (saying "vroom" when playing with a car, or "ruff ruff" when playing with a toy dog), and follow your child's interests."
- Read to your child. Reading is a great way to encourage early communication and narrative skills, as well as a healthy bonding activity for you and your child. "Reading improves so many foundational lifelong skills - like vocabulary, comprehension, and literacy—and is key to academic success. Start with simple picture books and graduate to books with words over time," Sherred suggests.