It's such a joyful moment when your baby speaks that first precious word.
But when should that happen? And should you worry if your baby doesn't speak as early as other children?
Kaleigh Loeffler, a speech-language pathologist with Children's Health℠, explains speech milestones to watch for in babies and toddlers and ways you can encourage your child to talk.
At what age do babies start talking?
Most babies say their first word sometime between 12 and 18 months of age. However, you'll start to hear the early stages of verbal communication shortly after birth.
"From birth to 3 months, babies make sounds. There's smiling and cooing," explains Loeffler. "Once your baby hits 6 months, you may hear more speech-like babbling. Your baby might make the 'puh' sound, the 'buh' sound and something that sounds like 'mi.'"
As your baby grows, you can expect these early speech milestones:
- Between birth and 3 months: Babies make cooing noises.
- Between 4 and 6 months: Babies laugh, giggle and make playful sounds.
- By 12 months old: Babies make longer strings of sounds like ba-ba-ba-ba-ba or da-da-da-da-da or mi-mi-mi.
- At 12 to 18 months old: Many babies start using single words. They name familiar people and objects – such as ma-ma, da-da, ball and cat.
"Typically, right before that 1-year mark, babies experiment with different sounds, and then you might hear a few words," says Loeffler. "But don't worry if your baby is not forming complete words by age 1. Sometimes the babbling continues well into the next year of life, with pointing and gesturing. That's OK. Your baby is still communicating."
Speech development chart
After age 1, Loeffler advises parents to watch for yearly speech milestones.
- By 12 to 18 months: Baby says single words.
- By age 2: Child says two-word phrases, such as "Dog sit." "Mommy go."
- By age 3: Child has words for almost everything and speaks three-word phrases.
Each year after that, children should form longer and longer sentences.
How many words should an 18-month-old and 2-year-old say?
At 18 months old, babies may say anywhere between 10-50 words. If your child has not hit that mark, you don't necessarily need to worry. Children develop at different rates.
"Instead of focusing on a specific word count for each age, consider: Is your child's vocabulary growing? Are they learning more words each week?" advises Loeffler. "If you're seeing continuous growth, that's an indicator that speech is going well."
Talk with your pediatrician if your child does not speak about 50 words by age 2.
What factors affect your baby's ability to talk?
Sometimes language development is delayed if your baby has certain medical issues or diagnoses, such as:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Cerebral palsy
- Down syndrome
- Hearing impairment
Environment also plays a factor in speech development. If children are not brought up with a rich exposure to language – where people interact with them often – they may be late talkers.
Has the COVID‑19 pandemic or masks affected babies' speech and language development?
At this point, there's not much research on how masks affect speech development. However, we know that a baby's face time with parents, caregivers and siblings is extremely valuable.
"In the first months of life, it's important for babies to see your face and mouth and learn to imitate your facial expressions," explains Loeffler. "Babies and toddlers with diagnosed speech problems need those visual cues. So, for them, masks could be especially challenging."
Long quarantines or isolation may also slow speech development in certain children if they don't get enough social interaction with others at home, preschool, daycare or playdates.
It's important to remember that masks and social distancing have played a critical role in keeping your child and family healthy. Loeffler recommends that parents raising babies and toddlers during the pandemic take steps to encourage speech development, such as:
- Spending lots of time interacting with your little ones at home without masks. Let them see your face so they can imitate your speech and facial expressions.
- Making plans for your children to play safely around other children – possibly outdoors in your yard, at a park or on a play date.
Are bilingual children delayed talkers?
There's a common misconception that children who grow up in bilingual homes and learn two languages will have speech delays. However, Loeffler says there is no evidence to support this. "If a child knows 10 words in both English and Spanish – water and agua, for example – we would count that as a 20-word vocabulary," she says. "Developmentally, they're on track."
How to teach your baby to talk
The best way to encourage your child to talk is to spend time talking and interacting with them. "Give your baby lots of face time and one-on-one interaction. Children learn language by watching and imitating your facial expressions. They're like sponges, absorbing everything around them," says Loeffler.
To help your baby talk, try these tips:
- When your baby coos, respond. Say: "Oh, are you happy? Are you sleepy?"
- When baby smiles, smile back. This back-and-forth interaction is communication. Your baby learns to pick up cues and respond.
- Narrate what you and baby do – as you do it. For example, say: "Daddy's changing baby's diaper." "Baby is holding a spoon." "Baby's kicking the ball." This parallel talk helps babies learn vocabulary.
- Read a book. Point to the pictures on each page. Talk about the colors and objects.
- Sing songs and nursery rhymes. To capture your baby's attention, dance or gently rock your baby as you sing. Act out "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Jack and Jill." Your baby will associate movement with words.
- Play. Any type of play – with balls, toys or pots and pans – contributes to babies' language development. They imitate what you do and say.
- Continue the conversation: As your baby becomes a toddler, teach them to put together new words by expanding on what they say. For example:
- When your child points to a dog and says the word "dog," you can say: "Yes, that's a big dog. That dog is running outside. Hear the dog bark."
- If the child says "airplane," say: "That's a big airplane. That plane is flying high in the sky."
Using toys and apps to promote speech development
Many parents are curious if certain toys or apps can help their baby learn to talk. Loeffler recommends choosing toys that display cause and effect. This can help children develop their thinking skills, which is necessary for language growth.
Some examples of cause-and-effect toys include:
- You put a ball in a hole, and it goes down a slide.
- You put a coin in a piggy bank, and it sings a song.
- You wind up a box, and a stuffed animal pops out.
If you use an app, be sure to engage with your child and carry that activity over into the child's real world. Face-to-face interaction is best for speech and language development.
What are signs that your child may need help with speech and language development?
Consult your pediatrician if your baby does NOT:
- Show interest or attempt to communicate (such as pointing or gesturing) by 15 months
- Imitate a variety of sounds and words by 18 months
- Follow simple directions by 18 months ("Get the ball.")
- Use word combinations by age 2 ("Mamma go." "Baby drink.")
- Identify people and objects in their environment
Other signs of potential speech issues in children include:
- Your child seems to have a good vocabulary, but you cannot understand the words by age 2.5 or 3.
- Your child has a sudden loss of speech and language skills.
If you're concerned about your child's speech development, talk to your primary care doctor or pediatrician. If needed, you'll get a referral to a speech-language therapist for an evaluation. Sometimes, your child just needs a little extra help. Early intervention can ensure your child thrives.
At Children's Health, the Speech Therapy program is home to experts who specialize in helping children overcome speech and language impairments. Our multidisciplinary works with patient families and providers to help children develop the skills to successfully communicate, socialize and learn. Learn more about speech language pathology or see more information about developmental milestones in babies.