Even though babies communicate in many different ways from a very early age, every parent anxiously waits for those first real words to come tumbling out. When exactly will that be, though, and how can you help along the way? Keeping in mind every baby and every family is vastly different, the following milestones are general guidelines. As always, if you have any concerns, please consult with your pediatrician.
A baby’s first and most primitive form of communication comes in the form of cries. I’m sure before you became a parent you thought people who said they could distinguish their babies’ cries were nuts. However, once you become a parent, it totally makes sense. Baby’s cries sound different if they want to be cuddled, have tummy pain or are mad. Their crying is the only way to communicate their needs (which proves very challenging, especially in the middle of the night!), and our job as parents is to respond to those cries.
Around 3 months, you’ll notice your baby starting to coo. Although it won’t sound like much, this sweet little sound is an important step in language development. Your baby loves the sound of your voice, so coo right back as if you are having a conversation. This teaches your baby turn taking. Spend plenty of time talking to your baby as you both go about your day as well. Katherine, a Lenexa mother of two who also has a master’s degree in early childhood education, says, “I really try to narrate the day. So, when dressing, I say things like, ‘First let’s put on your new diaper. Now we are getting your shirt on. Oh look, it’s a pink shirt!’ You feel a little foolish in the beginning, but it becomes natural over time.”
I am notorious for narrating my day with our kids. I’m the crazy lady walking around the grocery store or Target talking nonstop. If it doesn’t come as natural to you or feels weird, keep practicing! It certainly will be a help to your baby, who will love hearing your voice!
The next milestone comes around 6 months, when your child begins babbling with random syllables like ba-ba or da-da. Although your husband would like to interpret this as Baby’s first word being da-da, typically no meaning is attached to the babbling sounds at this age! Continue to talk to your baby throughout the day and expose her to new words. As your baby experiments with this babbling, mimic the sounds back to encourage your baby. The conversation will be pretty one-sided at this point, but continue narrating your day and demonstrating turn taking.
By 9 months, babies can understand simple words like bye-bye, no, eat, milk, etc. At this age, you may find your child experimenting with more consonant sounds and expressing his wants with varying levels of vocalization. This can be a good time to teach a few basic signs of baby sign language to assist your baby with communication. If you aren’t familiar with baby sign language, a quick search on Google or YouTube will help.
Around 12-18 months, most babies have a few simple words like mama or dada with actual meaning attached to them now. Babies this age can also understand and respond to simple requests such as “sit down” or “put the blocks away.” Make time to sit alongside your child while he plays and tell him about what he is doing. “You built a big tower.” Or “Look! You put the cow in the barn. A cow says moo.”
As parents and caregivers, we are our child’s first teacher of many things, and language is a major one. Remember from an early age to read and sing songs to your child, as well as expose her to a variety of words as you go about your day with her. Lindsey, a speech language pathologist, agrees. “During the first year of life, it is so important to talk, read and sing to your child. This models language and teaches them how to understand and use it to communicate.” Although turning on the television to entertain your baby can be tempting, try to resist the urge. Even though your child is still hearing language via the television, studies show hearing it from a person right there with them has a greater impact on babies’ learning. So, enjoy the many developing stages of language and don’t forget to grab the baby book to jot down the most memorable ones!
Fingerplays are a great—and fun—way to engage babies in language. Familiarize yourself with a quick search on Google or YouTube. Here are a few favorites:
- Twinkle, Twinkle
- Wheels on the Bus
- Itsy, Bitsy Spider
- Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes
- If You’re Happy and You Know It
- Open Shut Them
Julie Collett has a degree in early childhood education and is fascinated by the development of language in young children. She has four children, ages 8, 6, 4, and 18 months, who have each been so different in their development of language!
As always, please consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns.