Your Baby’s First Words

Your Baby’s First Words

When do babies start talking?

By Heather Millar

You probably have plenty of questions about your child’s developing speech skills. When do babies start talking? When can they understand what you say, and when will they start responding? Like every other baby milestone, there are ranges that are individual and unique to each child.

Babies also begin developing their speech early on, with sounds, syllables, and noises that later turn into words. By the time your baby reaches their first birthday, they may begin saying simple words like “dada,” “mama,” or “bye.”

We connected with experts to learn more about the various speech related milestones, and what to look out for as your little one begins to express themselves with words.

Birth to 3 Months
Babies listen from day one. They learn to associate sounds with their sources, like barking with the family dog. Their first communication will be crying, but they’ll soon start using their tongue, lips, and palate to make gurgles and long vowel sounds like “oo,” “aa,” and “ee”—precursors to those exciting first words.

What your baby can understand: Babies as young as 4 weeks can distinguish between similar syllables like “ma” and “na.” Around 2 months, they begin to associate certain sounds with certain lip movements.

4 to 6 Months
Around 4 to 6 months, your baby’s sighs will give way to babbling. You’ll hear back-of-the-tongue consonant sounds, such as g and k, and lip sounds m, w, p, and b. Your baby will begin to focus on familiar words like their own name, or “mommy” and “daddy” as clues to help break up sentences.

What your baby can understand: At 4.5 months, they may recognize their name, but only as an important word, such as “Hi!” or “Bye!” It’s not until 6 months, at the earliest, that they’ll realize their name actually refers to them.

7 to 12 Months
Your child’s babbling will begin to sound more like words. They’ll intentionally repeat sounds (like “gaga”) over and over. At about 9 months, they’ll start to understand gestures, pointing and grunting to indicate their wants. At about 10 months, they’ll gain more control and combine sounds, even using their own invented words.

So when do babies usually say their first word? Around 12 months, according to experts. Common first words may be greetings (“hi” or “bye-bye”) or they might be very concrete: people (“mama” or “dada”), pets (“doggy” or “kitty”), or food (“cookie,” “juice,” or “milk”).

What your baby can understand: Your baby is slowly beginning to recognize and comprehend a few familiar words, such as names and everyday objects like “bottle” or “crib.” Your baby will focus more on intonation, realizing that a sharp tone often means “No!” or “Stop!”

13 to 18 Months
As soon as your baby says that first word, they’ll try for more. Vocabulary builds slowly at first, with just a few words per month. Kids seem to prefer nouns, then gradually add verbs and adjectives. They’ll experiment with one-word questions, like “Cookie?” for “May I have a cookie?” and delight in saying “No!”

What your toddler can understand: Your baby should understand the first rudiments of grammar, such as the difference between “The dog bit the man” and “The man bit the dog.” They should grasp simple one-step instructions (“Get the ball”) and understand many more words than they can say.

19 to 24 Months
Though linguists aren’t sure why, toddlers have a “language explosion” around 19 to 20 months. After several weeks of slow progress, they suddenly start learning words at a ferocious rate—as many as nine words each day!

This explosion of words often leads to the exhausting “Why?” stage. By the end of the second year, your toddler will be stringing two, or even four, words together in sentences. This is also an age of cute mistakes, as kids overextend and “under-extend” concepts. For instance, your child may learn that the round toy is a “ball,” figure all round things must be balls and point to the full moon, and chirp, “Ball!”

What your toddler can understand: Your baby will slowly begin to
understand the idea of verbs. Fully aware that you are their key to
language, they will watch and listen to you, absorbing everything
you say and do.

25 to 30 Months
During this time, your toddler is refining what they have learned so far. They’ll add “When? What? Where?” to “Why?” And begin to add complex ideas, learning that “no” can mean “not” or “don’t” or “it’s all gone.” Late in the year, they may begin to use more abstract verbs like “think” and “know.” As your toddler gains control of the tip of their tongue while speaking, they begin to manage sounds like ph, th, and r.

What your toddler can understand: They will begin to understand tense, plurals, and suffixes such as “ing” and “ly.” Soon, your child should be speaking in two-word sentences, such as “Drink milk” or “Play ball.”

Things you can do to help: Rhyming games help build awareness of language sounds. If your child makes a mistake, repeat the sentence back correctly instead of drawing attention to the error. For instance, if they say, “I goed playground.” You can say back, “You went to the playground? Great!”

What to watch: Kids’ thoughts may go beyond their ability to form words. If stuttering, or some other problem like a lisp, concerns you, consult a health care provider.

3 Years
By 3 years old, your toddler should convey whole thoughts by employing just a few words, like saying “Mommy no socks” for “Mommy isn’t wearing any socks today.” Later in the year, they’ll speak in longer sentences, putting several thoughts together to tell a story in about 300 words.

What your toddler can understand: They should be able to follow a storyline and remember ideas from it. They’ll also begin to enjoy nonsense phrases.

Things you can do to help: Read to your child from storybooks with more of a narrative. Kids need more assistance than we do for conversation. Take a look at their preschool class list, and start making stuff up. “Was Mary in school today?” Add something silly, like “Was she wearing that hat with the fruit on it again?”

4 to 5 Years
By this age, your child should be having extensive conversations with adults; using adjectives in detailed sentences; telling knock knock jokes; and asking questions with proper intonation. Before turning 6, they’ll likely have an expressive vocabulary of around 2,500 words.

What your toddler can understand: About 14,000 words. They’ll also be able to express complicated thoughts like fears and dreams, say “thank you”, and use words to elicit reactions from others.

Things you can do to help: Don’t criticize any missteps in articulation or speech. Instead, repeat your child’s statements back to them with the correct pronunciation or word usage. Give them lots of praise for their efforts.

What to watch for: Too much screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children 2 and older view no more than two hours of quality programming per day. Kids need interaction and response to learn language. Most TV shows don’t interact, and computer games aren’t responsive to a child’s ideas.


Download the full issue of the September-October 2023 Healthy Options News Digest here.

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