The newborn baby phase has its delights, but it doesn't take long until you start wondering when those magical words — "Mama" or "Dada" — will be uttered. Here's what you need to know about talking and other pre-verbal milestones, like cooing and pointing.
When do babies start talking?
Even if they aren't technically talking, babies start communicating very early — think of a newborn who cries when he's hungry. "Even babies, before they get words, they can communicate what they need with noises and gestures," says Phil Boucher, a pediatrician based in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the host of the "Parenting Matters" podcast.
As far as vocalizing and saying words, every baby does it differently. "Sometimes parents come in and think that their child has to be at this point on this day or there's something wrong, and I try and remind them that there's a large continuum of normal for developmental milestones," says Boucher. Here's an overview of how things typically go.
4 to 6 months: Babbling and Gurgling
Around this time, or possibly a bit earlier, you'll start to hear the delightful baby babbling and gurgling. "The first semblances of language are coos and things like that, which are intentional, since they are using the back of the throat versus the tongue, and they are the first noises that a baby will make purposefully and realize, 'Oh, if I coo, my parent smiles at me,'" says Boucher. Getting a parent to take notice of them continues to be a goal as the baby grows. "Babies will talk to themselves to be entertained and pass the time, and between four and seven months, they may start to screech, yell, bang, and drop toys to get your attention," says Dyan Hes, medical directior of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City.
7 to 11 months: Consonants emerge and first word
While earlier sounds were mostly vowels, around this time is when consonants start to emerge. "They will start to do 'muh' and 'duh' and 'guh,'" says Boucher. Turns out that "d" sounds are a bit more straightforward for babies to make than "m" ones. "'Dada' is an easier word for them to say, so it's often said first, to the dismay of many mothers," says Hes.
Another important non-verbal milestone that doctors look for is pointing, which can start around 8 months and shows that a child is becoming engaged with his environment. "Pointing at the fish in the aquarium to try and get a parent's attention, that counts as language development because it shows that mutual experience they want to share," says Boucher.
Speech starts to sound more conversational after nine months, and some babies may say their first word by age one.
12 to 18 months: Words with meaning
Babies start to use words that have meaning, so instead of just babbling "dada," they will use that word to purposefully refer to their father. Fifteen month olds usually have at least three to five words; by 18 months they may have anywhere from eight to 10 words, which may include the names of those close to them and parts of the body.
24 months and up: Expanded vocabulary
After age two, kids experience what Boucher calls "the word explosion." You'll likely start to lose track of how many words your child knows, because he's picking up new ones every day. "Two-year-olds should be able to put two word sentences together and have anywhere from 100 to 300 words," says Hes.
For more information, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a chart of hearing, understanding and talking milestones from birth to one year.
How to help teach your baby to talk:
The answer is simple: Talk to them. "Babies pick up on the rhythm of the words adults are saying, and learn sounds as they watch their parents lips move," says Hes. Boucher suggests avoiding too much cutesy baby talk, since it won't help your baby's language skills progress. "Sing-song voices and silly talk don't show the depth and the breadth of what language has to offer," he says.
He suggests simply describing what you're doing around the house or what you see when you're outside. "It might feel silly to talk to the baby that can't respond or empathize with the struggles of modern parenthood, but just talking to them helps them hear more words and lets them see you express emotion, both of which contribute to language development," he says.
Another recommendation: Avoid screens, especially before age 2, which is the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Watching a screen is passive learning and does not promote speech, which is learned by interacting with others," says Hes. Since that isn't always realistic, at least make screentime educational. "Ask your child to repeat what they learned, sing a song with them from the show, or practice new words with them," she says.
WHAT IF MY ONE-YEAR-OLD HAS NO WORDS?
Seeing other kids talking when their child isn't isn't can be especially nerve-wracking for parents, but Boucher says he looks at the big picture, and also points out that a child who started cooing or babbling later might also talk later. "A lot of parents worry at the 15-month well visit that their baby isn't saying enough, but if they're making progress, going through their coos and their consonants and there are other signs that they're both able to hear and understand, we wait for that word explosion," he says.
Doctors look at both comprehension and expression when evaluating a child's language development. "Comprehension is being able to follow one simple direction, and usually 12- to 18-month-olds can do this, so if you say, 'Put the monkey in the toy chest,' they will do it," says Boucher. Expression means, as Boucher says, "Being able to communicate their needs, like raising their arms to say 'pick me up.'"
WHAT ARE SOME SIGNS OF SPEECH AND LANGUAGE DELAYS IN BABIES?
According to Hes, it's important to let your doctor know if you observe any of the following signs, as he or she may want to refer you for a speech and hearing evaluation.
- Seems to not be hearing well
- Does not respond to the sound of parents' voices
- Does not respond to his name being called after nine months
- Appears to be in his own world and doesn't startle from loud noises
- Can't be understood by others (at age two, 50 percent of what he says should be intelligible by others, this should jump to 75 percent by age 3 and by age 4, everything should be clear)
Hearing is, as Hes says, "the most important factor in speech development," which is why all speech evaluations start with an audiology exam. "Parents will say to me, 'I know my baby hears me because he follows my commands,' but some of these babies may be following different cues and not actually hearing well," she says.