When do babies start talking? “It’s often tough to distinguish babbling from actual word production,” says Daniel Swingley, PhD, director of the infant language lab at University of Pennsylvania. “One of the things that parents naturally do is interpret something that sounds like a word as an actual word. It all depends on how generous parents want to be.”
Still, there is a window of time when you can expect to hear your baby first words, and then there should be a steady progression from there. Read on to learn when your baby will start talking, and find out how to help him say even more.
Around six to eight months of age, you’ll start to hear repeated consonant sounds like “dada” or “baba,” followed by other consonant sounds like “mama.” (Sorry, Dad, it’s not fondness but development that made you number one.) “You may not recognize the word they’re saying at first, but they’re trying to communicate,” says Gigi Chawla, MD, senior medical director of primary care for Children’s Minnesota. “By now, they’ve also been doing reciprocal smiling, laughing, reaching for you—these are interactions that occur ahead of that, which set babies up to be able to articulate sounds by the time they’re six to eight months old.”
Between seven and twelve months, you’ll start hearing more recognizable words, even if they’re not so clear. “If there’s an airplane flying overhead, and she says something that sounds like pay or nay, then that’s a true case of the baby saying the word,” says Swingley. “Mastering the complex articulations of talking is actually very difficult for babies; it’s very complicated. So it takes a lot of practice for them to get their tongue and teeth and breath all lined up to speak clearly.”
How can you help your baby acquire new words?
The best way to get your baby talking more is for you to talk more! “In order for kids to learn how to speak, they have to be hearing that language often,” says Chawla. “Talk out loud to your really small infants, from the start, about everything you’re doing and seeing. Narrate your activities as you go about your day. It exposes your children to a tremendous amount of language that will help them learn how to speak themselves.”
As your baby gets a little older, it’s important to focus on the things that he’s already paying attention to, homing in on what he seems to care about in that moment. If your baby attempts certain words, use it as an opportunity to clarify. “If he says ‘ca’ while looking at a picture of a cow, it’s a good idea to say something like, ‘Yeah, is that a cow?’ You’re showing him how he can modify his speech.”
Also, Swingley advises against using baby talk. “Use real adult language, even sophisticated language to talk about things,” he says. “You don’t need to talk about your mortgage or the election or use complicated sentences, but you want to give your child real examples of how language works.”
Another must: Read to your child, early and often. “Books are probably the best platform for learning language because you’re showing them objects and shapes and images, and they’re tying it all together with words,” Chawla says. “There’s a lot of linguistic interaction between parent and baby.”
What might inhibit his ability to learn new words?
In order to learn language, your baby has to be able to hear. “If you recognize that your child is not attentive, or doesn’t startle at loud noises or turn when the dog barks, she may have a problem with her hearing,” says Chawla. While most newborns get a universal hearing screening, some babies’ issues may get missed. Also, Chawla adds that a baby can have recurrent ear infections that can build up fluid in the ears and inhibit their ability to hear adequately.
Aside from hearing problems, sometimes parents can be inadvertently inhibiting their child’s language development. “Moms who are struggling with postpartum depression often don’t engage with their babies as much; they’re not as verbal or communicative, which could set the child up for delayed language acquisition,” says Chawla.
Television can also play a role in a child’s speech delay. “Some families are under the false impression that a baby can acquire language through screens, but it doesn’t take the place of talking, reading, singing, or engaging with your child,” warns Chawla. “Only a continual, engaging relationship with a trusted individual—parent, grandparent, caregiver—can foster language development.”
Lastly, if your baby is learning more than one language, it may take longer for her to say her first English words. “If you look at the total number of words she knows by the age of one, it’ll be more than the typical monolingual child, but she’ll know fewer English words,” Swingley explains. “Still, we tend to think that learning language in a bilingual family is worth the ultimate rewards, even if they have a smaller English vocabulary in the short term.”
When should you be concerned about your baby’s verbal abilities?
While there tends to be a range in which babies say their first words, you should expect to see vocalizations, the repeated consonants, before the age of one, and you should definitely see receptive language skills. “They should do some pointing, recognize things you’re saying, seem to get what you’re talking about,” says Chawla. “For example, do they get excited when you say it’s lunchtime? When you mention the dog, do they look for him? We are looking for the subtle things that show they understand.”
As for actual spoken language, experts say you want to see an evolution and some progression. As long as they’re building on their language skills and making new sounds, then they’re moving forward. “If you recognize that your child is not making steady progress or acquiring new words, if they’re not parroting back words, you’ll want to talk to your pediatrician,” says Chawla. “Also, if your child had the skills, was saying mama, baba, dada and then stopped, that’s also cause for concern.” This could signal developmental issues like an autism spectrum disorder or Rett syndrome.
By age two, experts say children should have about fifty words in their vocabulary, and they should be putting words together into simple sentences or phrases like, “all done” or “go bye-bye” or “more cracker.”
Still, even if your child has a language delay, most will overcome them with speech therapy and intervention. It’s important to pay attention to the milestones and discuss any concerns with your pediatrician.
Photo: Getty/Michael Goldman/Photographer’s Choice