Before babies learn to talk in a real language -- say English or Spanish -- they babble and coo, playing with sound. That's baby talk, and baby talk sounds similar the world over.
But when do babies say their first words? Critical milestones for a baby learning to talk happen in the first 3 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 brain development.
When Do Babies Start Talking?
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 one baby to another. But normally they should hit certain language milestones at certain ages. If your baby misses any of the following milestones, talk to your pediatrician or family doctor about your concerns.
Baby speech 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, singsong 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 and to use their hands to communicate.
- Baby talk at 12-18 months. Most babies say a few simple words such as “mama” and “da-da” 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 such as “cup” -- they also mean abstract ideas like “mine.”
- Baby talk at 3 years. By the time your baby is age 3, their 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.”
When do babies talk in sentences?
Usually, at around 2 years they'll start putting together simple words into phrases and sentences. You can help them do this by answering them in full sentences when they use a few words to communicate. Also, teach them about words that go together. For instance, hold up a doll and a teddy bear and say “toy.”
By age 3-4, they should be able to use sentences with more than four words and to answer simple “Who,” “What,” “Where,” and “Why” questions and to talk about what happened in day care or on a visit to grandma's house.
How to Teach Your Baby to Talk
Babies understand what you're saying long before they can clearly speak. Many babies who are 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 lift both arms to say they want to be picked up, hand you a toy to say they want to play, or push food off their plate to say they've 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 through the reactions of adults around them.
- Imitate. Babies love to hear their parents' voices. And when parents talk to them, it helps babies to develop speech. 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 them 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.
Signs of a Speech Delay
A speech and a language delay are not the same things, though they can overlap. A language delay means your child can say words properly but can't put them together in a sentence. A speech delay means your child can verbalize ideas with words and phrases but is hard to understand.
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if your child has a speech or language delay. . Here are some things to look out for along with the appropriate ages. If your child is not meeting those milestones, it might be a cause for concern or something to discuss with your pediatrician.
By 12 months
- Not using gestures, such as pointing or waving
- Not able to say simple words like “mama” and “da-da”
By 18 months
- Preferring gestures over trying to talk
- Difficulty imitating sounds and understanding verbal directions
By 2-3 years
- Can imitate speech and actions but can't come up with their own words and phrases
- Can't follow simple directions
By 3 years
- You (and close family members or caregivers) can't understand what your child is saying 50%-75% of the time.
By 4 years
- Has trouble forming sentences or tends to leave out words from sentences.
- While you might be able to understand what your child is saying, most people outside the family do not
Causes of Speech Delay
- Hearing Loss. Children learn to talk by listening to and imitating the adults around them.
- Intellectual or learning disability. Dyslexia is just one learning disability that may cause a speech delay.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with ASD will often make up words or repeat words over and over. They also have trouble with social interaction and do not respond positively to attention from their parents or others.
- Problems with the tongue. Speech can be delayed if the frenulum (the membrane that attaches the tongue to the floor of the mouth) is too short or there's some other tongue problem.
- Psychosocial deprivation. The adults in the child's life don't spend enough time talking to them, thus slowing speech development.
- Being a twin. Studies show twins tend to develop language later than singletons, due to genes and possibly birth complications. But they catch up to their peers by age 5.
- Elective (selective) mutism. The child talks only in certain situations. For instance, they may talk at home but not at school due to social anxiety or shyness.
- Cerebral palsy. Many kids with this disorder have trouble controlling the muscles in their face, throat, neck, and head. These can lead to speech troubles, among other things.
- Living in a bilingual household. Bilingualism doesn't cause speech delay. Children who grow up in homes where two languages are spoken may start speaking slightly later than children who grow up with one language, but it will still be in the normal age range (8-15 months). The bilingual child may have a smaller vocabulary in each language than a child from a monolingual home but their total vocabulary should equal that of a monolingual child.
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 many reasons, but the earlier a speech problem is diagnosed, the more time you'll have to correct it before school age. After talking with your pediatrician, here are things to do to help with delayed speech:
- Have a hearing test done. As many as 3 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 the age of 3 months if they don't pass the initial hearing screening.
- See a speech-language pathologist (SLP). An 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. Ask your baby's doctor about screening for these developmental problems, which can cause speech delays.
Encourage your baby's first words with your frequent cooing, babbling, talking, and singing. Keep responding positively and showing that you care. When it comes to baby talk, that's the best building block. If your baby isn't saying words by 12-18 months, you want to have them evaluated for speech delays.
Baby’s First Words FAQs
What is considered baby talk?
Babbling or cooing to your baby or saying things in a simple, “baby-friendly” way, like “Baby want wawa?” “Baby talk” is used in many different cultures around the world. Some parents prefer to speak to their infants in what's called “parentese”: full sentences using real words only, but delivered in a singsong style. This improves your child's language skills faster than baby talk, according to some studies.
The babbling and cooing your baby does to you is also baby talk and is a way of them developing speech.
At what age does a baby talk?
Usually by 12-18 months. By 12 months, they can usually say a few words. By 18 months, they should be combining two-word phrases, such as “Me want.”
Can a 6-month-old say mama?
It's possible because the “ma” sound is one of the easiest for a baby to say. But they may not recognize that “Mama” applies to their mother until they are closer to 1 year.