While each moment in a baby’s first year is special, hearing their first word is beyond exciting for parents - and the whole family.
After all, language plays a huge role in human experience. It’s a big part of how we learn, express our thoughts, follow our passions, and communicate with others. Your baby’s first word is a tiny step toward a lifetime of interaction.
How do babies learn to talk?
As with all major human development activities, babies learn language in progressive stages. Here is the general pattern.
Crying machine: Birth to three months
Your baby’s voice is a powerful communication tool. In the beginning, they’ll be using it to get your attention for a variety of problems.
The good news? When they’re not experiencing distress, they’ll be very interested in hearing your voice. Talking to your baby provides comfort, reassurance and an early crash course in your language.
Babbling brook: Four to seven months
At some point in this period, you’ll probably wake up to the sound of your child cooing away in their crib. Experimenting with sound is one sure-fire way to play with language.
You might hear your child making sounds that aren’t part of your language? Human babies are born able to make all the sounds of language. But the sounds that don’t fit get dropped as they age.
If you have a dual language speaker in your house, speaking both languages to your child will help them retain a wider range of sounds.
Pattern recognition: Eight to 12 months
Your baby’s gibberish skills will get more intentional in this period. You’ll even hear the odd word in there. Don’t get too excited — Parenting Magazine notes your baby hasn’t officially learned a word until they can repeat it in multiple contexts.
Better still? Your baby will demonstrate from their reactions to you that they understand what simple words and phrases mean, especially the ever-popular, “No.”
Repeatable words: 12 to 18 months
In this phase of language growth, your child will be using several words consistently and you’ll see their vocabulary expanding all the time. Tried and true favourites are of course the words for family members (“Dada,” “Mama” and others).
They’ll also be interested in the words for food and favourite activities, even if they’re not quite pronouncing them the way you do (e.g., “boo” for “blue”).
Little conversations: 18 months and up
Once they start putting words together into simple phrases, your baby’s ability to tell you what they’re thinking will know no boundaries.
"Uh, I don’t see those stages happening for my baby"
Don't panic. Children develop skills at their own pace. Some talk early and others start later.
Have you heard that Einstein didn’t talk until he was seven? While evidence for him being a late talker is disputed, many others who were late coming to language have made impressive contributions to society.
But you know your child best. If you’re concerned about your child’s development, speak to your family doctor.
"What can I do to help my baby learn language?"
Great news... there’s lots you can do to help. In fact, talking with you and other loving adults will help your baby to learn your language’s rules. And, you’ll also be modelling loving behaviour while expanding their vocabulary. Pretty cool, huh?
Here are some easy things you can do...
Repeat their sounds
When your baby does start babbling, they’ll love hearing you echo their noises.
Playing mimic will also help them get used to the give-and-take rhythm of human conversations. It’s not listening if you’re just waiting for your turn to talk!
Add the details about whatever you’re doing
If you’re getting your baby dressed, talk with your baby about the process. “Which shirt should we wear today? I like this soft, white shirt with the blue stripes. See the yellow duck on the sleeve?” Will you feel self-conscious about your running commentary? Some parents do, especially in the beginning. After a while, you won’t even notice.
Encourage them to interact with other kids
Babies find other children fascinating. If you have older children in the house or your neighborhood, your baby will enjoy listening to them talk. If your baby is a younger sibling, don’t be surprised if one of their big brother’s or sister’s names is one of their first words.
Stay present and enjoy the silliness
Babies can be really adorable when they’re babbling. Make sure you jot the details down while you remember them.
Pro tip! Start a story in your Child Journal about your baby’s adventures in language. You can record video and audio clips to go with your photos and reflections. Someday, they’ll love looking back at how silly they were as they learned to talk.
Read to your baby from an early age
Have you stared into your baby’s huge eyes and wondered what’s going on inside their tiny heads? Us, too. While infants don’t have the verbal tools to tell you what they’re thinking, reading will help them develop an ear for your language. It also provides a structured activity for parents who finds it challenging to talk with a baby who can’t talk back yet.
Pro tip: In the beginning, you don’t have to limit yourself to baby books. You can read anything to young infants. What matters is that you read with expression and enthusiasm. So do what works for you! We know one young dad who read his daughter The Hobbit before she was eating solid food.
"What should I not do?"
Don't speak in gibberish
Speak to your child as though they understand you. Exception? When you’re mimicking their noises to show them that you’re listening.
Overcorrect their mistakes
We all learn by making mistakes. And, as your child gets older and their language usage gets more complex, it’s important to protect their sense of exploration. So, make sure you’re correcting errors gently. “I has cheese?” “Yes, you can have cheese.”