When do babies start talking? Well, most babies say their first words by their first birthday, but they begin communicating long before that. Before they start speaking, babies are gathering information. And the best way for parents to help their babies make it to those first words – and thrive with language development in the months after – 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. Turns out that high-pitched, sing-song voice people revert to for puppies and babies is a universal way for parents to communicate basic sounds to babies. There’s more to it than using a sing-song voice, though. Waiting for the baby to respond can help them learn a 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 explains. “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.”
How to Get a Baby to Talk
- 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.
Sure, the kids probably won’t say anything intelligible, especially if they’re under eight months old – at least, not by speaking. 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.
Language and vocabulary keep developing even after that first, deliberate word appears. It can sometimes be a frustrating time when pronunciation and articulation haven’t yet caught up with what kids want to say, but by two years of age, kids should be able to answer simple directions and simple 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 baby’s response. Then, progress to three word-phrases, etc. By age, three, 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.“
The Science of How Babies Learn to Talk
So an MIT genius named Dev Roy did this crazy TED talk called Birth Of A Word, that shows how exactly a kid acquires language. He created a camera network throughout his home that captured video and audio of every single interaction the adults in his house had with his kid.
Through algorithmic wizardry, Roy then made it possible to search all of the footage and trace a single word over the year that it developed in his kid (while also mapping it to the rooms in his house where it developed).
The result of his research revealed language development to be a subtle and natural interaction. Here are the general steps:
- The caregiver talks about something.
- The kid indicates they want that thing and makes a mouth noise similar to what they heard from the caregiver.
- The caregiver picks up on cues and says the actual word for the thing while giving the thing.
- Kid absorbs the correction and says the word for the thing in a slightly different way next time.
- The process repeats until the kid can say the word (in Roys case, water) in full.
So there were no flashcards necessary. There were no special learning modules. There weren’t any books or apps. The kid just learned it naturally.
How Speech Delay Happens
Sometimes, though, kids struggle with language despite how much parents engage and talk to them. These 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. 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, chicken pox, 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. Parents who have any concerns about their child’s development should speak to their pediatrician. Free or low-cost evaluations are available for children from birth to three years of age in every state; early intervention is key to helping children develop language.