Before babies learn to talk in a real language -- English, say, or Spanish -- they babble and coo, playing with sound. That's baby talk, and baby talk sounds similar the world over.
But when will you hear your baby's first words? Critical milestones for a baby learning to talk happen in the first three years of life, when a baby's brain is rapidly developing. During that time, your baby's speech development depends on your "baby talk" skills as well as your baby's.
When Will You Hear Baby's First Words?
The first "baby talk" is nonverbal and happens soon after birth. Your baby grimaces, cries, and squirms to express a range of emotions and physical needs, from fear and hunger to frustration and sensory overload. Good parents learn to listen and interpret their baby's different cries.
Just when your baby will say those magical first words varies greatly from individual baby to individual baby. But if your baby misses any of the following milestones in speech development, talk to your pediatrician or family doctor about your concerns.
Baby Talk Milestones
- Baby talk at 3 months. At 3 months, your baby listens to your voice, watches your face as you talk, and turns toward other voices, sounds, and music that can be heard around the home. Many infants prefer a woman's voice over a man's. Many also prefer voices and music they heard while they were still in the womb. By the end of three months, babies begin "cooing" -- a happy, gentle, repetitive, sing-song vocalization.
- Baby talk at 6 months. At 6 months, your baby begins babbling with different sounds. For example, your baby may say "ba-ba" or "da-da." By the end of the sixth or seventh month, babies respond to their own names, recognize their native language, and use their tone of voice to tell you they're happy or upset. Some eager parents interpret a string of "da-da" babbles as their baby's first words -- "daddy!" But babbling at this age is usually still made up of random syllables without real meaning or comprehension.
- Baby talk at 9 months. After 9 months, babies can understand a few basic words like "no" and "bye-bye." They also may begin to use a wider range of consonant sounds and tones of voice.
- Baby talk at 12-18 months. Most babies say a few simple words like "mama" and "dadda" by the end of 12 months -- and now know what they're saying. They respond to -- or at least understand, if not obey -- your short, one-step requests such as, "Please put that down."
- Baby talk at 18 months. Babies at this age say several simple words and can point to people, objects, and body parts you name for them. They repeat words or sounds they hear you say, like the last word in a sentence. But they often leave off endings or beginnings of words. For example, they may say "daw" for "dog" or "noo-noo's" for "noodles."
- Baby talk at 2 years. By age 2, babies string together a few words in short phrases of two to four words, such as "Mommy bye-bye" or "me milk." They're learning that words mean more than objects like "cup" -- they also mean abstract ideas like "mine."
- Baby talk at 3 years. By the time your baby is age 3, his or her vocabulary expands rapidly, and "make-believe" play spurs an understanding of symbolic and abstract language like "now," feelings like "sad," and spatial concepts like "in."
Can You Teach Babies to Talk?
Babies understand what you're saying long before they can clearly speak. Many babies learning to talk use only one or two words at first, even when they understand 25 or more.
You can help your baby learn to talk if you:
- Watch. Your baby may reach both arms up to say she wants to be picked up, hand you a toy to say she wants to play, or push food off her plate to say she's had enough. Smile, make eye contact, and respond to encourage these early, nonverbal attempts at baby talk.
- Listen. Pay attention to your baby's cooing and babbling, and coo and babble those same sounds right back to your baby. Babies try to imitate sounds their parents are making and to vary pitch and tone to match the language heard around them. So be patient and give your baby lots of time to "talk" to you.
- Praise. Smile and applaud even the smallest or most confusing attempts at baby talk. Babies learn the power of speech by the reactions of adults around them.
- Imitate. Babies love to hear their parents' voices. And when parents talk to them it helps speech develop. The more you talk their "baby talk" with them, using short, simple but correct words, such as "dog" when your baby says "daw," the more babies will keep trying to talk.
- Elaborate. If your baby points to the table and makes noise, don't just give him more noodles. Instead, point to the noodles and say, "Do you want some more noodles? These noodles taste good with cheese, don't they?"
- Narrate. Talk about what you're doing as you wash, dress, feed, and change your baby -- "Let's put on these blue socks now" or "I'm cutting up your chicken for you" -- so your baby connects your speech to these objects and experiences.
- Hang in there. Even when you don't understand what your baby is saying, keep trying. Gently repeat back what you think is being said, and ask if that's right. Keep offering your loving attention so your baby feels rewarded for trying to talk.
- Let your child lead. During playtime, follow your child's attention and interests to show that communication is a two-way game of talking and listening, leading, and following.
- Play. Encourage children to play, pretend, and imagine out loud to develop verbal skills as they become toddlers.
- Read aloud. Lifelong readers come from young children who have plenty of fun, relaxing experiences of being read to out loud.
If You're Concerned About a Speech Delay
Watch for any sign of a major speech delay in your baby, and talk with your doctor if you sense there's a problem. A speech delay can happen for a number of reasons, but the earlier a speech problem in babies is diagnosed, the more time you'll have to correct it and help your child reach his or her full potential before school age. After consulting with your pediatrician, here are things to do to help with delayed speech:
- Have a hearing test done. As many as three out of 1,000 newborns have hearing loss, which can cause delayed speech development. Most states require a hearing screening in the hospital right after birth. Take your baby in for a full hearing exam by age 3 months if he or she doesn't pass the initial hearing screening.
- See a speech-language pathologist. A SLP can diagnose and treat specific speech, language, or voice disorders that delay speech. Treatment may include giving parents tips and games to improve speech problems in babies and improve a child's language skills.
- Consider developmental screening. Up to 17% of children in the U.S. have a developmental or behavioral disability such as autism spectrum disorder or cognitive disability (also called mental retardation). Ask your baby's doctor about screening for these developmental problems, which can cause speech delays.
What's the first step for babies learning to talk? Encourage your baby's first words with your frequent cooing, babbling, talking, and singing. Keep responding positively and showing you care. When it comes to baby talk, that's the best building block.