There are some things a parent just knows—you quickly learn to decode cries and can tell, by the look on baby’s face, that a poopy diaper needs attention. But then there are times when it feels like you’re trying to communicate with a caveman via a series of grunts, gurgles, and wails. Naturally, you begin to wonder: When do babies start talking?
After many months of what can feel like mind reading, baby’s first word is one of the most exciting milestones for mom and dad. In this post, we’ll answer:
- When do babies start talking?
- What are the most common first words?
- What’s the best way to help baby develop verbal skills?
- What if baby’s speech is delayed?
When Do Babies Start Talking?
Like most developmental milestones, as much as parents crave a hard-and-fast answer to the question when do babies start talking, there isn’t one.
But you might be surprised to learn that baby is preparing for his/her first word right from the start. Language skills actually begin with crying. It’s baby’s very basic way of communicating discomfort or a specific need. Soon after, usually within the first three months of life, your little one should show more signs of verbal skills by cooing (and smiling)—baby’s way of expressing contentment.
Over the next few months, those soft, sweet coos give way to babbling.
By four to six months of age, baby usually begins experimenting with the real building blocks of speech—babbling.
According to Perri Klass, M.D., babies all over the world babble in the same way and then later use those sounds to form speech in their native language. Though so many parents eagerly await those first real worlds, research suggests this beginning stage is crucial for both cognitive and emotional development.
So what does baby babble sound like?
Babbling generally combines a consonant and a vowel or two vowels to produce a single syllable (i.e. oo, da, or ba).
This type of single syllable babbling often occurs around 6 months of age. It paves the way for multi-syllabic, repeated sounds (i.e. bababa, ohohoh, or guhguh). This type of deliberate speech—referred to as “canonical babbling”—often occurs between 7 and 10 months of age.
Although it may not sound like much to you yet, Michael H. Goldstein, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell, says responding to your baby’s babbles provides encouragement and helps her learn new sounds and sound patterns.
Babies have to hear real language from real people to learn these skills.Television doesn’t do it, and neither do educational videos: recent research suggests that this learning is in part shaped by the quality and context of adult response.
Once baby starts to babble, you’ll really start to wonder: when do babies start talking? Is my baby almost there? Later in this post, we’ll discuss more ways you can help encourage your baby to talk.
But when do babies start talking? Remember, every child is different, but, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), most babies should be able to utter a few simple words by 12 months. At this point, your baby should also be able to recognize the sound of their own name, understand words for common items like mom :), and start to respond to simple phrases like “want more?”.
According to PBS, baby’s vocabulary skills should roughly follow this timeline:
- 12 months: say up to three words and communicate by grunting, nodding, pointing
- 15 months: say about 14 words
- 16 months: say about 40 words
- 18 months: say about 68 words
- 23 months: say about 200 words
But that doesn’t mean most people will have any clue what baby is trying to say—even Mom and Dad might have some trouble!
From 12 months to 24 months, words are rarely spoken correctly in the adult manner. (source)
So when do babies start talking clearly? Clarity will continue to develop during the second and third years of life. And when do babies start talking enough to carry on a conversation? By four, your child’s speech should be clear enough that people who do not regularly interact with your child understand him/her.
Baby’s First Words
Common first words for baby are usually simple and repetitive, which is why mama and dada are often baby’s first words.
One study scanned newborn’s brains while they played recordings of made up sounds. They played words ending in repeating syllables, like “mubaba” and “penana,” as well as words more complex words, like “mubage” and “penaku.” When the repetitious words were played, brain activity increased. While the other words were played, brain activity remained the same. This leads scientists to believe that these sorts of repetitive sounds are hard-wired in the human brain.
So when will my baby say mama or dada?
Hearing your child say your name for the first time is a special and highly anticipated moment. But mama, do know: babies often learn to say dada before they learn to say mama. Both my children said dada first. 😭 It felt totally unfair since I was the one with my babies nearly 24/7 since birth. (But then again, “doggie” was both of my children’s very first word! 🐶 And we don’t have a dog!)
Nasal sounds like “m” are actually more difficult for babies, says Breyne Moskowitz, PhD. When babies start babbling, they’re more likely to utter the sound “da.” This is because making that kind of sound doesn’t require forcing air through the nose.
And don’t worry, mama: Experts believe babies don’t always know they are specifically calling for their dad when they utter “dada.”
“Kids start with simple words that have various meanings,” says Sandra Disner, PhD, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California. “The word ‘up’ could mean ‘pick me up’ or ‘the moon in the sky.’”
How to Teach Babies to Talk
Since there is no absolute answer to the question when do babies start talking, your energy is better focused on helping your child learn to communicate.
Fortunately, this is pretty straightforward: The best way to help your baby learn to talk is to talk to your baby. During the first three years of life, your baby’s brain triples in size! And research shows that frequently talking to your baby facilitates brain development that may even benefit reading and thinking skills later in life.
Research has shown that children from talkative families may have heard 30 million more words directed to them by age 3 than children from less-talkative families! And the same research study showed that the more words the children had heard by age 3, the better they did on tests of cognitive development. (source)
Activities That Will Help Your Child Learn to Talk
- Talk clearly: It may feel silly to talk to a newborn, but it’s important to start early. Try narrating your actions (“We’re putting on pants to go outside!”) or saying the names of objects you are offering to your baby (“This is your rattle”).
- Sing: Singing helps your baby learn the sound of your voice and teaches them the fundamentals of language—how words get strung together and how certain words evoke different feelings. As an added bonus, research indicates singing keeps infants calmer.
- Quiet Time: When there is no extra noise from television or the radio, baby is better able to focus on experimenting with babbling and making other noises. Another reason to turn off the TV? Studies show that television and radio speech do not contribute to a child’s speech development.
- Eye Contact: Hold baby close to your face, so he can look into your eyes and see you talking to him.
- Imitate sounds: When your baby makes a sound, repeat the sound back to her.
- Repeat words: When your baby tries to say a word, repeat it back to him and encourage him to say it again.
- Read: Make an effort to read to your child every day. If you read one book a day to your child, she will have read over 1,000 books by the time she’s in kindergarten. You can also make this a fun family goal by seeing if your local library participates in the 1,000 Book Before Kindergarten program.
- Respond: When your child speaks to you, even if it is unintelligible, answer back and carry on a conversation.
- Shapes, Numbers, Colors: Point out objects of different shapes and colors. For example, “Look at the blue sky” or “That sign is a rectangle.”
- Gestures: Use gestures such as waving or pointing to help convey meaning when you are speaking. You can also teach your child simple sign language to help him communicate as early as six months old. When using baby sign language, be sure to always say the word he signed to you.
- Go on adventures: Take baby to the zoo, the park, or a museum. Whether it’s animals or boats, talk about what you’re seeing together.
Speech or Language Delays: What to Do If Your Child Is Not Talking
As parents, we want what’s best for our babies. Sometimes, it’s easy to feel discouraged when your baby is barely speaking at 18 months, while the baby at the park has an extensive vocabulary. There is no definitive answer to the question when do babies start talking. Remember: every baby develops differently. For example, some kids are physically very able (can climb, jump and skip) but are “behind” with language skills. If your child isn’t talking as early as you expected, it is likely they are developing faster in some other area (physically or emotionally– think less tantrums, better self control, etc.). Have patience with your baby, and do what you can to gently encourage language development.
If your child’s language skills are just not progressing to your liking, you may consider…
- Talking with your child’s pediatrician about your child’s language development. (Hopefully, you’re already discussing your child’s milestones during his/her frequent check ups in his/her first year of life.)
- If your child’s language skills are just not progressing, you may consider having his hearing tested.
If your child does not have a hearing problem and is between the ages of 18 and 30 months, the ASHA suggests asking yourself if they are:
- Following commands: Does your child seem to know her name? Does she understand what you’re asking when you use simple questions, like “do you want more“?
- Using gestures: Can your child point to what he wants? Can he wave hello or goodbye?
- Trying new words: Is your baby making an effort to string vowels and consonants together? Is she trying to utter different sounds?
If your baby is not doing one or more of the above, he/she is more at risk for developmental delays. It does not, however, mean your child has developmental delays.
According to kidshealth.org you should speak to your doctor if:
- By 12 months: isn’t using gestures, such as pointing or waving bye-bye
- By 18 months: prefers gestures over vocalizations to communicate and has trouble imitating sounds or has trouble understanding simple verbal requests
- By 2 years: can only imitate speech or actions and doesn’t produce words or phrases spontaneously, says only certain sounds or words repeatedly and can’t use oral language to communicate more than his or her immediate needs, can’t follow simple directions, has an unusual tone of voice (such as raspy or nasal sounding), is more difficult to understand than expected for his or her age
The bottom line is, YOU know your child best—trust your instincts. If you suspect there is a problem, go with your gut, and talk to your pediatrician or contact a speech language pathologist (SLP).
What to Do If Your Child Has a Speech or Language Delay
Do not feel discouraged if your doctor believes your child may have a language or speech delay. This is one of the most common types of developmental delays and affects anywhere from 2-19 percent of preschool children. (source)
Your doctor may recommend your child see a speech-language pathologists (SLPs), also called a Speech Therapist, a professional who works to prevent, assess, diagnose, and treat speech, language, social communication, cognitive-communication, and swallowing disorders in children and adults. Or, some moms work with an Occupational Therapist.
Your pediatrician should have good references for you (since this is such a common delay!) or ask around in your community of moms. You can also find a local Speech Language Pathologist professional near you in this directory.
How about you?
When did your baby say their first word and what was it?