Parents wait in wonder for babies to utter their first word: When a baby starts talking, it’s a major developmental moment and an emotional one. That first discernible word is the first shared language, the beginning of a long conversation. So when should babies start talking? At what age can parents expect a baby’s first words? And is there anything parents can do to encourage a child to talk sooner?
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 and absorbing 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, the best way for parents to help their babies say their first words, and help their language development thrive in general, is to talk 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.
How to Help Babies Start Talking by the First Year
- Speak to babies from day one – long before they have any ability to answer with words, babies are learning by observing.
- Give them a chance to reply – when those nascent skills start to manifest as rudimentary sounds, parents should converse with their baby, pausing three seconds to allow them a chance to form a reply.
- Have conversations in front of them – regular dinnertime conversation can help infants and toddlers improve their language conversation, so don’t dumb down the dinnertime dialogue.
- Physiology can delay speech – cleft lips and palates can delay speech, as can hearing loss. Parents should speak to their pediatrician if they have any concerns.
- Developmental differences can delay speech, too – every state has affordable resources for parents to assess their children for developmental delays.
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 may cause a buildup of inflammation and fluid behind the eardrum that directly impacts a child’s speech and language development.
Speech and language delays can also be due to challenges like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental delays. If a baby hasn’t started talking by 12 months, it isn’t necessarily acause for concern, but parents should discuss any concerns about their child’s development with their pediatrician.