My Baby’s Developmental Milestone: Talking

Your baby will learn to talk during his first two years of life. Long before he utters his first word, he's learning the rules of language and how adults use it to communicate.

He'll begin by using his tongue, lips, palate, and any emerging teeth to make sounds ("ooh"s and "ahh"s in the first month or two, babbling shortly thereafter). Soon those sounds will become real words ("mama" and "dada" may slip out and bring tears to your eyes as early as four to five months).

From then on, your baby will pick up more words from you and everyone else around him. And sometime between 18 months and 2 years, he'll begin to form two- to three-word sentences. As your baby makes mental, emotional, and behavioral leaps, he'll increasingly be able to use words to describe what he sees, hears, feels, thinks, and wants.

When and How it Develops

Here's how you can expect your baby's talking to progress. If he's being raised in a bilingual environment, the number of words he can speak will be split between the two languages he's learning.

In utero
Many researchers believe the work of understanding language begins while a baby is still in utero. Just as your unborn baby gets used to the steady beat of your heart, he tunes into the sound of your voice. Days after birth, he's able to discern your voice among others.

Birth to 3 months
Crying is your baby's first form of communication. And one cry doesn't fit all: A piercing scream may mean he's hungry, while a whimpering, staccato cry may signal that he needs a diaper change. As he gets older, he'll develop a delightful repertoire of gurgles, sighs, and coos.

As for his ability to understand language, he's starting to pick up what words sound like and how sentences are structured as he listens to those around him. Linguists say babies as young as 4 weeks can distinguish between similar syllables, such as "ma" and "na."

4 to 6 months
At this stage, your child will start to babble, combining consonants and vowels (such as "baba" or "yaya"). The first "mama" or "dada" may slip out now and then. Though it's sure to melt your heart, your baby doesn't equate those words with you quite yet. That comes later, when he's almost a year old.

Your baby's attempts at talking will sound like stream-of-consciousness monologues in another language, with endless words strung together. Vocalization is a game to your baby, who's experimenting with using his tongue, teeth, palate, and vocal chords to make all sorts of funny noises. At this stage, babbling sounds the same, whether you speak English, Bahasa Melayu or Mandarin in your home. You may notice your child favoring certain sounds ("ka" or "da," for example), repeating them over and over because he likes the way they sound and how his mouth feels when he says them.

7 to 12 months
When he babbles and vocalizes now, your baby will sound as if he's making sense. That's because he's trying out tones and patterns similar to the ones you use. Foster his babbling by talking to him and reading to him.

13 to 18 months
Now your child is using one or more words, and he knows what they mean. He'll even practice inflection, raising his tone when asking a question, saying "Wee-wee?" when he wants the potty, for example. He's realizing the importance of language as he taps into the power of communicating his needs.

19 to 24 months
Though he probably says about 50 to 70 words now, your child may understand as many as 200 words, many of which are nouns. Between 18 and 20 months, he'll learn words at the rate of 10 or more a day (so watch your language!). He'll even string two words together, making basic sentences such as "Carry me."

By the time he's two, your child will use three-word sentences and sing simple tunes. His sense of self will mature, and he'll start talking about what he likes and doesn't like, what he thinks and feels. Pronouns may confuse him, which is why he might say "Baby throw" instead of "I throw."

25 to 36 months
Your toddler may struggle for a while to find the appropriate volume to use when talking, but he'll learn soon enough. He's also starting to get the hang of pronouns, such as "I," "me," and "you." Between ages two and three, your child's vocabulary will grow to up to 300 words. He'll string nouns and verbs together to form complete, simple sentences, such as "I go now."

By the time he turns three, your child will be a pretty sophisticated talker. He'll be able to carry on a sustained conversation and adjust his tone, speech patterns, and vocabulary to his conversation partner. For instance, he'll use simpler words with a peer, but be more verbal with you. By now he may be almost completely intelligible. He'll even be a pro at saying his name and age, and will proudly oblige when asked.

Your Role

You can help your child's language skills along by providing a rich and nurturing communication environment. The most important things to do:

Talk

Research shows that children whose parents spoke to them extensively when they were babies have significantly higher IQs and richer vocabularies than other children. You don't need to chatter no-stop, but speak to your baby whenever you're together. Describe what you're doing, point things out, ask questions and sing songs. Although some baby talk is okay, resist the temptation to coo and babble. Your child will learn to speak well by listening to you speak well.)

Read

Reading to your child is a great way to expose him to new vocabulary, the way sentences are put together, and how stories flow. As a baby he'll delight in the sound of your voice, as a toddler he'll enjoy the stories and pictures, and by the time he's a preschooler he may even jump in to tell you what's going on in a book.

Listen

When your child talks to you, be a good listener — look at him and be responsive. He's more likely to speak up when he knows you're interested in what he's saying.

When to be Concerned

You're the best person to gauge your child's speech development. If he's showing any of the signs listed below and you feel concerned, it's a good idea to discuss the possibility of a language delay or hearing problem with your child's doctor. If it seems necessary, your doctor will refer your child to a speech-language therapist for an evaluation.

Some signs to look out for:

6 to 12 months

Your baby isn't making (or even attempting to make) any sounds or eye contact with you, or stops babbling at around six months.

13 to 18 months

Your child isn't saying any words by 15 months (including "mama" or "dada"), didn't babble before his first birthday, is unable to point to any body parts, or you still can't understand a word he's saying by 18 months.

19 to 24 months

Your child rarely attempts to speak or imitate others, drops consonants from words (saying "ea-ut" for "peanut," for example), doesn't seem to get frustrated when you can't understand what he wants, or only uses single words — no combinations.

25 to 36 months

Your child continues to drop consonants, has difficulty naming most everyday objects, hasn't started to use two- or three-word phrases, or by age three cannot be well understood by someone who doesn't know him.

If your child stutters, it doesn't necessarily signal a problem. Stuttering is a normal phase, especially when his ability to communicate is expanding so rapidly. Sometimes he'll be so excited to tell you what's on his mind that he can't get the words out fast enough. But if his stuttering continues for more than six months, or if it's bad enough that he tenses his jaw or grimaces in an effort to get the words out, talk with his doctor about it.

What Comes Next

As your child grows, he'll become more of a chatterbox. There might be moments when you long for those peaceful days of speechlessness, but for the most part, you'll delight in his play-by-plays of what happened at preschool, what he thinks about dinosaurs, and his descriptions of what his best friend likes to eat.

By age four, your child will use about 800 words. He'll begin to understand and use correct tenses, along with the words "won't" and "can't." Oh, and get ready for every why, what, and who question under the sun.