Supporting your baby’s language development

Supporting your baby’s language development
Your baby starts communicating with you long before they learn to talk. Here’s how you can support their language development.

From the moment they’re born, babies are developing the skills necessary for speech. Before saying their first words, they learn to recognize speech sounds and start to associate words with objects and people in their environment.

Communication development in babies

Babies try to communicate with their parents long before they can express themselves using words. These early attempts include crying, moving their body, and making faces.

At 3 to 6 months, they start to make voluntary sounds, like cooing. They’re interested in their surroundings and like making eye contact with their parents. They’ll also respond to the sound of a parent’s voice by turning their head or going quiet.

Between 6 and 9 months, babies start to babble, producing strings of syllables like “dadada” and “mamama.” Soon after, they begin to imitate sounds, followed eventually by words.

At 9 to 12 months, babies are great communicators, despite not being able to talk. They smile and laugh when they see their parents, reach out to be picked up, and point to objects that they want or that they’re interested in. They also make more varied sounds (e.g., the consonants m, b, p, and t).

From about 9 months, babies start to recognize a few common words, including their own name, even though they’re not able to say them. Babies will usually say their first words (e.g., Mommy, Daddy, no, milk) between 12 and 16 months.

How to encourage your baby’s language development

  • Talk to your baby often, right from day one. Speak to your little one while feeding, changing, dressing, soothing, bathing, or playing with them. For example, you can narrate what you’re doing or describe the emotions you think they’re feeling. When you go for walks, you can also point out the things you see (e.g., leaves on trees, children playing in the park).
  • Make eye contact and get close to your child when you talk to them so they can see your facial expressions and how your lips move. This will also make it easier for them to recognize your emotions.
  • React with delight and enthusiasm to your baby’s communication cues (e.g., smiles, sounds, gestures) so they learn to expect a response from you. Then, give them time to answer.
The more words your baby hears, the more they’ll eventually be able to understand and say.
  • See how your baby reacts when you smile, stick out your tongue, or open your mouth wide. They may pay more attention to what you’re saying if you’re making funny faces. If your baby wants more, keep it up! By taking turns, you’re teaching your little one the basics of conversation.
  • When your baby starts to make sounds, imitate them. They’ll be delighted by your reaction and encouraged to keep communicating with you.
Why talk to a baby?
  • Use the sounds your baby makes to form real words. For example, if they say “mamama,” you can answer “That’s right, it’s me, Mommy!” If they say “dadada,” you can say “Yes, Daddy’s going to give you a big hug!” This exercise helps your child understand that words are made up of combinations of sounds.
  • Read books and sing nursery rhymes (link in French only), even if your baby doesn’t understand the words yet. Listening to you will help them learn!
  • Name the things that catch their attention (e.g., a toy they want, a bird on the windowsill, the apple you’re eating, their big sister’s model cars). Just like adults, babies want to hear about what interests them. They’ll likely be more motivated to learn the names of favourite objects and people.
  • Help your baby learn their name by using it often. Their name is usually one of the first words they recognize.
  • When talking to your baby, point to the objects and people you mention. Your little one will gradually learn that pointing is a way to communicate. They’ll soon start pointing to things that they want or that they’re interested in, which will help you understand them better.
  • Use a higher voice when you speak to your child, enunciating clearly and exaggerating your intonation. Research shows that talking this way is beneficial for children’s language development, as it holds their attention and elicits positive emotions.
  • However, avoid using baby talk. For instance, don’t say “din-din” instead of “dinner.” Your child needs to learn the correct words for things.

Remember that all children acquire language and communication skills at their own pace. Some skills develop early on, whereas others appear later.

If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s language development, talk to their doctor or contact the Ordre des orthophonistes et audiologistes du Québec to find a speech-language pathologist (link in French).

Can TV contribute to language development?

TV shows, baby DVDs, and radio programs won’t speed up your child’s language development, and they cannot replace real parent-child interaction. Your baby needs to connect with you to learn the basics of communication.
In addition, the Canadian Paediatric Society states that children under the age of 2 should not have any screen time. According to certain studies, children under a year old who watch TV for more than two hours a day are more likely to develop a language delay.
A recent study out of Australia confirms that exposure to screens has a negative impact on language development between 12 and 36 months. The results indicate that for every extra minute spent in front of a screen, children hear fewer words from adults, say fewer words of their own, and thus have fewer interactions.

Things to keep in mind

  • Before they learn to talk, babies communicate by smiling, crying, gesturing, and so on.
  • Even before the age of 1, babies can make speech sounds and recognize certain words.
  • To learn to speak, a child needs to interact with an adult who is attentive to their communication cues. Screens are not recommended before the age of 2.
Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Agathe Tupula Kabola, speech therapist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: June 2024

Photo: GettyImages/dusanpetkovic

Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.

  • API-Enfance and Centre intégré universitaire de santé et de services sociaux de la Capitale-Nationale. Grilles de développement du langage de 0 à 5 ans.
  • Bergeron-Gaudin, Marie-Ève. J’apprends à parler : le développement du langage de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 184 pp.
  • Brushe, Mary E., et al. “Screen time and parent-child talk when children are aged 12 to 36 months.” JAMA Pediatrics, vol. 178, no. 4, 2024, pp. 369–375.
  • Howard, Jacqueline. “Global ‘goo-goo’: What baby talk sounds like around the world.” 2017.
  • Ordre des orthophonistes et audiologistes du Québec. Développement de la communication chez l’enfant de 0 à 5 ans. 2020.
  • Speech-Language & Audiology Canada. “Dos and don’ts to help stimulate oral language in young children.”
  • Pepper, Jan, and Elaine Weitzman. It Takes Two to Talk: A Practical Guide for Parents of Children with Language Delays. Toronto, Hanen Program, 2004, 171 pp.
  • Radio-Canada. “Est-ce une bonne chose d’utiliser un ton enfantin avec les tout-petits?” 2021.
  • Canadian Paediatric Society. “Position statement. Screen time and preschool children: Promoting health and development in a digital world.” 2022.
  • Canadian Paediatric Society. “For lifelong health, read, speak and sing to your baby from birth: Paediatricians.” 2022.
  • Canadian Paediatric Society. “Read, speak, sing to your baby: How parents can promote literacy from birth.” Caring for Kids. 2021.