When do babies start talking? It’s a question many parents ask — especially after months of the child crying and parents being unable to figure out exactly what’s going on.
However, just like many milestones, the age when babies start talking varies, just as it does with crawling, walking, and sleeping through the night. And just as your little one will most likely crawl before they walk, most of the words they say at first (those cute, incoherent babbles) will come before the words. But a baby’s understanding of language and processing the words and experiences around them start even before birth.
Language Development in a Nutshell
“Your baby can hear your voice and other environmental sounds in utero. He will not be able to see well at birth, but he will be able to hear everything, and even to discriminate one sound from another,” Tara Tuck, a speech-language pathologist who specializes in early language development with the Joy of Language, tells Parentology. “Babies’ brains are truly incredible; we can see newborns tuning in to human communication.”
According to Tuck, most babies’ brains contain more neurons than they need, so that’s when a pruning process takes place from newborn to six months.
“Because of baby’s experiences during this time, including the language she hears, the neurons needed to remember and use these bits of information are retained,” Tuck says. “Your baby’s experiences will actually shape her brain.”
How Babies Learn Language
Babies learn about language the way they learn about everything — through observing you, other children, family, friends, and so on. Not only do they learn the concept of language, but they also start to understand the actual process of communication, including verbal and nonverbal cues.
And those unintelligible babbles are one of the most important milestones when it comes to talking.
“Most babies start babbling—making sounds or syllables without meaning attached—around 4 to 6 months,” says Katie Lear, LPC, RPT, RDT, and licensed children’s psychotherapist. She tells Parentology, “Babbling is incredibly important for babies because it’s the foundation of speech. When a baby babbles, he is learning how to coordinate his mouth and muscles to make sounds that other people can recognize.
Tuck says that by the six-month mark, you’ll notice that your baby is beginning to recognize and tune into the languages spoken and heard in their environment. When they hear people talking around them or talking to them, they can start to correlate the facial expressions and the exaggerating gestures and nonverbal cues in ways we don’t realize.
What are the baby milestones and at what ages do they hit them? Continue reading to find out…
When Do Babies Start Talking?
Milestones to Mark
Just like walking, there are suggested milestones that you should look for when it comes to your baby’s cognitive development in terms of talking.
“The easiest way to think of it is that by one year, children should be using one-word phrases. By two years, they should be using at least two-word phrases and by three years, they should be using at least three-word phrases,” Erica Maginn-Doss, a speech therapist at Riley’s Children’s Health tells Parentology. “Obviously, the more language-rich an environment you provide for your child, the more language they will use.”
Those one-word phrases really depend on the child’s environment, and there is no right or wrong first word. As your child continues to watch and understand you from 12-18 months, they’ll start to see which words go together, and may even try to use them in such a way. By the time they’re two, their vocabulary can be as high as 50 words, and many actually have a good understanding of what their parents and siblings are telling them.
Encouraging Speech Development
The best way to encourage your baby to babble and your toddler to talk is to engage with them on a verbal and nonverbal level every single day. And, rather surprisingly, the way you talk to your baby will differ completely in how you talk to your toddler and your child.
“Babies prefer to listen to infant-directed speech, the sing-songy speech that we use when talking to babies. They begin to attend to language by hearing ‘the big picture,’ the whole, the gestalt – not yet understanding individual words,” Tara says.
However, for toddlers, it helps to talk to them in a regular tone. Have conversations with them that are short and ones that could warrant a response from them. Just be patient as they struggle through those words, as working with them is imperative to their growth.
“Parents can help to develop a child’s speech through a process called shaping. When a child stumbles upon a syllable with meaning, like ‘ma,’ it generates a reaction from the parent who might respond by repeating the word ‘Mama’ back to the baby,” Lear says. “This helps reward the baby for making approximations of words and gives them a structured way to continue developing their language skills.”
If your toddler isn’t speaking full words yet, encourage speech through sign language as well.
“A good way to help babies communicate is to use baby-sign with them. Using sign language does not inhibit spoken language, but instead gives the child a way to communicate until they are ready to talk,” Maginn-Doss says. “It is important to remember to always use the verbal word at the same time you are signing.”
When to Worry
As parents, it’s natural to worry if our child isn’t developing at the speed that others are. And, when it comes to speaking, your concerns might actually be warranted. “If your child is not using any single words by the time they reach one year old, you should seek out a speech and language assessment,” Maginn-Doss says.
According to Lear, the typical range for speech with children really does vary, as so much happens cognitively for them between ages 12 and 18 months. However, she sides with Maginn-Doss, and believes that if your six-month-old is not making any sounds, or if your baby isn’t speaking at least six words by 18 months, you should definitely consult a pediatrician.
“Your pediatrician may want to rule out hearing problems, developmental delays, and other conditions that can interfere with speech,” Lear says. “The good news is that early intervention services exist to provide speech therapy and these therapies can help kids catch up on their milestones and learn the skills they’ll need to succeed.”