child start speaking

When Should My Child Start Speaking?

When teaching your child how to speak, the question of when to begin teaching your child how to say is one that many parents are faced with. 

Some parents believe that children should learn independently, while others feel strongly about starting early and introducing them to the basics of speech as soon as possible. 

Children develop at varying rates in all sorts of ways, from when they take their first steps to understand that their perspective might be different from someone else’s. Language is no foreign, so there is no set age at which a child should start talking.

There are, of course, certain milestones which most children achieve in their communication at certain ages, and it can be a daunting time for parents who see their friend’s children begin speaking earlier than their own. 

For most children, this is likely just the natural variation in when children achieve their milestones. 

For others, this could be a temporary language delay which will eventually see them catch up without any intervention.

But for some children, a delay in early language milestones might be the first sign of a long-term language development disorder.

So what should parents look for if they are concerned about their child’s language development?

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.

When your baby will say those magical first words varies significantly 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.

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It’s Not All About Speech

Generally, children begin to babble from around six months and say their first words between ten and 15 months (most start speaking at about 12 months). 

They then begin to pick up increasing numbers of words and combine them into simple sentences after around 18 months.

It is important to note that language is not just the sounds we make with our voice. The idea that language is only speech is a huge misconception. 

We take it for granted, but understanding the language used by those around us is a very complex task. 

We need to know the words being used, have a concept of what those words mean in different contexts and understand the meaning of a sentence based on the order of the words. These are called receptive language skills.

Parents should be aware that children understand more from the earliest stages of language development than they can communicate themselves. 

Indeed, it is through children’s understanding of the language surrounding them – in other words, what parents, siblings and caregivers are saying – that they build their language skills.

Some conditions affecting speech, such as a stutter, are highly noticeable. In contrast, children’s problems when they are not developing language in the typical fashion can sometimes be hidden. 

Sometimes seemingly complex instructions can be readily understood due to the overall context. 

For example, telling your child to “go and get your coat and boots on” may be understood due to the context of getting ready to leave the house and understanding the words “coat” and “boots”.

Other instructions with a less clear context, such as “get the blue and black book under the blanket on the chair”, require a better understanding of the language itself and might be harder for children with language difficulties. 

It is often difficult to identify an underlying language problem in many children, mainly when they are good at using the social context.

How Does Speech Develop Over Time?

Language development varies considerably between children, even within the same family. 

However, children tend to follow a natural progression for mastering language skills, and specific milestones can be identified as a rough guide to normal development. Babies need to learn how the language sounds before being able to learn how to speak.

Although individual children develop at their rate, there are some general patterns:

Baby Talk at 3 Months. 

At three months, your baby listens to your voice, watches your face as you talk, and turns toward other agents, sounds, and music that can be heard around the home. 

Many infants prefer a woman’s voice over a man’s. Many also like 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 vocalisation.

Baby Talk at 6 Months. 

At six months, your baby begins babbling with different sounds. For example, your baby may say “ba-ba” or “dada.” 

By the end of the sixth or seventh month, babies respond to their names, recognise their native language, and use their tone of voice to tell you they’re happy or upset. 

Some eager parents interpret a string of “dada” 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 nine months, babies can understand a few essential words like “no” and “bye-bye.” They also may begin to use a broader range of consonant sounds and tones of voice.

Baby Talk at 12-18 Months. 

Most babies say a few simple words like “mama” and “dada” 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 the endings or beginnings of words. For example, they may say “daw” for “dog” or “no-no’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, 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.”

How Can Parents Help With Speech Development?

You can encourage your baby to start talking by:

  • Making faces and noises and talking about your activities from the day they’re born.
  • Playing interactive games like peek-a-boo and singing nursery rhymes.
  • Looking at books from an early age — you don’t have to read the words; talk about what you can see.
  • Speaking slowly and clearly and using short, simple sentences — if your child is already talking, try using sentences that are a word or so longer than the sentences they use themselves.
  • Avoiding testing, such as asking ‘What’s this?’, as children learn better without pressure.
  • Not criticising wrong words and instead of saying the word correctly — for example, if your baby points to a cat and says ‘Ca!’ say: ‘Yes, it’s a cat’.
  • Letting your child lead the conversation and help them expand on their thoughts.
  • Giving your child lots of opportunities to talk, with plenty of time to answer your questions.
  • Reducing background noise such as TV and limiting supervised TV watching for older children.

Can You Teach Babies to Talk?

Babies understand what you’re saying long before they can speak. Many babies learn to talk using only one or two words at first, even when they know 25 or more.

You can help your baby learn to talk if you:

Communicate Early

Long before your baby’s first words, she’s communicating with you. She may lift her arms to be picked up, shake her head for no, or reach for a toy she wants. Acknowledge and respond to this early communication to encourage your child to improve her communicative abilities. Being understood is the motivation for her to learn new ways to communicate.

Watch. 

Your baby may reach both arms up 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 vary pitch and tone to match their language. So be patient and give your baby lots of time to “talk” to you.

Praise. 

Smile and applaud even the most minor 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 a 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, listening, leading, and tracking.

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 aloud.

Be a Gasbag

Babies learn through listening, so chatter away, and her speech and language skills will blossom. 

Narrate to your baby as you go about your everyday business. Tell her what everything is and what you’re doing. 

The more words she hears, the more terms she’ll understand. Point out things of interest as you walk around, and tell her about your day.

Talk Often

The more you talk to your baby, the more words she’ll be exposed to. 

If you’re out and about, carry your baby in a sling on your front, or use a parent-facing stroller to ensure you can keep communication lines open. 

Putting your baby in a forward-facing stroller restricts communication. Not only will she be unable to see you, she probably won’t hear what you’re saying either.

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When to Seek Help

It can be very frustrating for the children themselves when they are unable to express their thoughts or when they don’t fully understand what is going on around them. 

A child with temper tantrums but finds it hard to say why they are distressed may have underlying language difficulty. 

This might signal language delay, which is not uncommon. If you notice that your child finds it hard to follow simple instructions, this could be due to difficulty understanding language, indicating a more persistent problem.

About 70-80% of children with expressive delays catch up with their language by four. 

For others, this might highlight developmental language disorder (DLD), long-term impairment of language skills. 

Even experts find it challenging to tell language delay and disorder apart before primary school. DLD is thought to affect 7.6% or one in 15 children. 

DLD can affect expressive and receptive language skills, and it lasts into adulthood.

All children can thrive, but children with DLD may need extra support to achieve their full potential. 

Rather than “wait and see”, it is a good idea to seek professional advice, mainly if your child is between 18 and 30 months and appears to have problems understanding language, uses very few gestures to communicate and is slow at learning new words. 

The first step is to contact a local speech and language therapy service.

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If You’re Concerned About a Speech Delay

Watch for any sign of a significant speech delay in your baby, and talk with your doctor if you sense there’s a problem. 

A speech delay can happen for several 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 their 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 complete hearing exam by age three months if they don’t pass the initial hearing screening.

See a Speech-Language Pathologist. 

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 behavioural 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.

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.

Boosting Language Skills

Language is flexible, and there is no such thing as too much language input. Whatever level of language development your child has, there are always things that you can do to boost their language skills further.

For example, when you are playing with your toddler, watch where their eyes are going and label the things they see. 

If they say “horse running”, you can build on this with: “Yes, the horse is running! Where is he running to?” 

This helps children learn new words and concepts and learn about how better to structure sentences.

Reading books together is great for building language skills, as you can find new words in books for things not often seen in real life, such as zoo animals. 

It is also valuable in promoting attention and listening skills. 

Be sure to ask lots of “why” and “how” questions to get more language out of your child, rather than questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. 

Watching videos or children’s television can be similar, but only if you manage and discuss the videos or shows together.

It sounds simple, but having back and forth conversations with your child can help enormously. 

Not only can this be incredibly rewarding socially, but it can help build and expand their language and more comprehensive social communication skills. 

Try to build this into regular activities, such as talking with your child while doing the supermarket shop.

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