Baby Talk: The When and What of Infant Speech Development

Of all of the “baby firsts” that we talk about in this blog, one of the most memorable is that first utterance that appears to be a real word or phrase. But if you and your baby have made it to that talking point, some questions may remain. What is she saying? Is she talking the way she is supposed to? And what can I do to keep the conversation going?

Actually, many parents of infants and toddlers who aren’t asking these questions should be. While as we shall see, speech development is quite variable among members of our youngest set, there is good reason to pay attention to the rate at which your child achieves talking milestones, and myths abound as to what might affect speech. We’ll tackle some of that folklore. But first, a primer on how infants usually progress in making sounds.

What They’re Saying (and When)

During the first few weeks of life, your little one is already prepping for speech development. A couple of things happen early on. By the first month or so, most babies are “cooing,” or producing vowel-like sounds (other than those produced by crying!). Also around this time, most are showing evidence that they can hear. It may be subtle at first, such as calming to the sound of a human voice, but a parent can generally tell a difference in a baby’s behavior when he is spoken to.

Around 6 months of age, on average, consonants are added, allowing single syllables to be produced. These become multiple syllables later in infancy—say, around 9 to 10 months in many cases. It’s around this time that you might hear that first “mama” and/or “dada.” Realize, though, that these are not specific utterances at this age; rather, they’re just syllables that are easily produced. (And Mom, don’t feel bad if the “dada” precedes the “mama” at this stage!)

Then, often by one year of age, the stage is set for that anticipated real “first word.” But what will it be? No one can say for sure, of course, but some words are more likely to be said than others:

–Words with some “easier” consonants, such as p, b, m or d, are more common. It makes sense, then, that in so many languages, informal names for parents and grandparents begin with these letters! You’ll likely even hear “mama” and “dada” used for the appropriate parents by this age.

–Kids naturally will tend to say words that they’ve heard. That said (literally), it’s common to substitute consonants—but usually the utterance is intelligible enough to get parents to recognize that it really is a word.

It’s worth keeping in mind that at this stage, infants and children will understand many more words than they will be able to say—in other words, their receptive language will be more developed than their expressive language. Thus, even if their vocabulary is limited or even nonexistent in late infancy/early toddlerhood, they should be able to follow a simple direction and communicate through motions such as pointing.

When to Be Concerned

The development of speech and language has a lot of individual variations. There are ways you can set the stage for good speech development. Pediatric providers do become concerned, however, if it appears a child isn’t progressing as she should. Characteristically, they’ll look for signs of hearing and back-and-forth interaction with Mom and Dad by a few months of age, babbling of syllables by a year, and a few words by 18 months. What I’ve found, interestingly, is that although parents are often worried about their perfectly growing toddler not eating, they’re usually less concerned about one who’s not talking. In some cases, that may be a mistake, as speech affects all other areas of development.

Sometimes parents are less concerned about speech and language due to the presence of a few myths about delayed speech. Let’s spend a little time on a couple of these:

We speak multiple languages at home. Living in an area where many people immigrate to live, I hear this frequently. Often there’s one American parent, one non-native English speaker, and sometimes a daytime caregiver with a third language! When experts have looked at this, they’ve found that normally there is no delay in word acquisition. The words may be in different languages, but toddlers should pick up total words at the same rate.

He has an older sibling who talks all the time. Although not being able to get a word in edgewise seems as if it would be a risk to speech development, seemingly being “spoken for” has not been shown to normally delay speech in a young child.

She has lots of words; she repeats whatever I say. Repeating words is really not the same as using them. In doing a word count, providers are interested in the words that are said spontaneously and with meaning, particularly from the toddler period onward.

Thus, if your child’s provider recommends a speech evaluation, do consider going through with it. Whatever isn’t covered by insurance is generally picked up by the government through your state’s early intervention program. And it’s nonhazardous, painless and usually even fun!

Stan Sack
Dr. Stan Sack has 29 years’ experience as a primary care pediatrician in Massachusetts and Florida. A medical writer since 2015, he enjoys blogging on topics that are on parents’ minds but are covered less often in books and on websites. He lives in the Florida Keys with his family and enjoys healthy cooking, fitness activities and singing in his spare time.

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