Few milestones make such as big of a difference in how parents relate to their kids as talking. When a baby starts talking, it’s a major developmental and emotional touch-point. So it’s natural for parents to anxiously anticipate first words and wonder: When do babies start talking? At what age can they expect a baby’s first words? And is there anything parents can do to encourage a child to talk sooner?
How to Help Babies Start Talking
While every kid is different, most babies say their first words around their 1st birthday. But babies can start communicating (if not talking) long before that, gathering huge amounts of information through play, observation, and interaction with parents. That information eventually becomes the foundation of their baby talk. So while parents don’t exactly need to teach their baby to talk, they can help their language development along by talking to them.
“Parents can help babies develop language by paying attention to infant cues, like smiles and eye gaze, looking directly into baby’s eyes and responding with a bit of a baby voice,” says Melanie Potock, a pediatric speech-language pathologist, feeding specialist, and prolific author. It turns out that the high-pitched, sing-song voice people revert to using in front of puppies and babies is a universal way for parents to communicate basic sounds to babies and help them learn to talk. There’s more to baby talk than using a sing-song voice, though. Waiting for the baby to respond can help them learn that conversation isn’t merely one-sided.
“The best way to help kids learn to talk is to have a conversation with baby, back and forth,” Potock adds. “You say something as you gaze at their little face and then … wait for it. Pause for up to three seconds. This ‘pause time’ is a game-changer and is used by speech-language pathologists to help babies, toddlers and even school-age kids develop better language skills.”
Sure, the kid probably won’t start talking, especially if they’re under 8 months old — at least, not intelligibly. But if they respond at all — a smile, a coo, a babble — parents should answer them back. At that point, they’re trying to engage, even if they’re not quite talking.
Baby Talk Timeline: A Month-to-Month Milestone Map
- 3-month-old baby talk – Babies begin to coo, and you’ll see them turn toward voices, listen to voices, and watch faces as people talk. By the end of three months, babies begin “cooing” — a happy, gentle, repetitive, sing-song vocalization.
- 6-month-old baby talk – Babies start to babble with different sounds like “ba-ba” or “da-da.” They’re able to respond to their own name, recognize their native language, and let you know if they’re upset by the tone of their voice. Babbling at this age isn’t so much a baby’s first words as they’re usually still made up of random syllables without real meaning or comprehension, no matter now much “da-da” sounds like “daddy.”
- 9-month-old baby talk – Babies start to use more consonant sounds and have more control over vocal tone, while also developing the ability to understand a handful of basic words like “no” and “bye-bye.”
- 12-month-old baby talk – Ok, now babies mean “daddy” when they say “da-da”. They can also understand and respond to short and simple requests like, “Put that down, please.”
- 18-month-old baby talk – Babies repeat words or sounds they hear people say, though usually imperfectly. You might be the only person who knows that they’re trying to get the dog’s attention when they say “daw!” Babies at this age say several simple words and can identify people and objects you name for them.
- 24-month-old baby talk – 2-year-olds can put together short phrases. As their vocabulary expands, they learn that words can have multiple meanings and that they can also have abstract meanings like “mine.”
- 36-month-old baby talk – Toddlers rapidly learn new words. They can express feelings and spatial concepts. And their acquisition of symbolic language opens the door for lots of make-believe play.
After babies say their first word, their language and vocabulary continue to develop rapidly. It can sometimes be a frustrating time when kids understand others and want to talk, but their pronunciation and articulation haven’t yet caught up. But by age 2, kids should be able to answer simple directions and questions and identify things on sight.
“Kids learn by listening to longer background conversations, but also by imitating simple, short phrases,” says Potock. “During the first year, when practicing the model, wait and respond method, focus on single words to model. As the baby develops a single-word vocabulary, you’re ready to model two-word phrases and pause for the baby’s response. Then, progress to three-word phrases, etc. By age 3, children should speak in at least a three-word phrase with ease and people outside the immediate family should be able to understand most of what the child says.
How Speech Delay Happens
Of course, babies may say not their first words or start talking until much later, even with a lot of parental engagement. Delays can be caused by any number of factors. Too much screen time, for example, can lead to delayed verbal speech. Parents can easily avoid that issue, but others aren’t so simple.
“Other factors outside of parental influence that determine vocabulary, pronunciation and language acquisition may include physical challenges such as significant ankyloglossia (tongue-tie), cleft lip or palate and other structural issues of the mouth,” explains Potock. “Hearing is also vital to language development, and all babies should be screened for hearing loss at birth and monitored by their pediatrician at all well-checks.”
Hearing loss may be due to a congenital condition, or a disease such as measles, chickenpox, or the flu. Head injuries may also cause hearing loss. Even common ear infections can cause a buildup of inflammation and fluid behind the eardrum that can influence a child’s speech and language development.
Speech and language delays can also be due to challenges like autism and developmental delays. If a baby hasn’t started talking by 12 months, it isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, but parents should discuss any concerns about their child’s development with their pediatrician.