Your baby is communicating with you long before they can talk. Here’s how you can support their language development.
From the moment they’re born, babies are developing the skills necessary for speech. Well before they say their first words, they can recognize speech sounds and 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 coos. They like observing their environment and making eye contact with their parents. At this age, they 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 syllables like dadada and mamama. Soon after, they begin to imitate sounds, and then 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 are interested in. They also make more varied sounds.
From about 9 months, babies start to recognize a few common words, including their own name. 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, from birth 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 how you think they’re feeling. Or, when you go for a walk, you can point out things in the environment (e.g., leaves on trees, children playing in the park).
When you talk to your baby, get very close and make eye contact so they can see your expression and lip movements. They’ll also have an easier time recognizing 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, “Yes, it’s me, Mommy!” Similarly, if they say “dadada,” you can reply, “Yes, Daddy is going to give you a big hug!” This exercise helps your child understand that speech sounds make up words.
- Read books and sing nursery rhymes, 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 what they want or are interested in, which will help you understand them better.
- Use infant-directed speech when talking to your baby. Articulate clearly, use a higher pitch, and exaggerate your intonations. Researchers have discovered that babies enjoy listening to this type of speech.
However, you should 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 learn how to communicate and use their native language at their own pace. Some skills will develop early on, whereas others will 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 (French only).
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 age 2 should not have any screen time. Studies have shown that children under 12 months who watch TV for more than two hours per day are more likely to develop a language delay.
Things to keep in mind
Before they learn to talk, babies communicate by smiling, crying, gesturing, etc.
In their first 12 months, babies can make speech sounds and recognize certain words.
To learn their language, a child needs to interact with an adult who is attentive to their communication cues.
Scientific review: Marie-Ève Bergeron-Gaudin, M.Sc., Speech-Language Pathologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: May 2018
Sources and references
Bergeron-Gaudin, Marie-Ève. J’apprends à parler : le développement du langage de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2014, 176 pp.
Pepper, Jan, and Elaine Weitzman. It Takes Two To Talk: A Practical Guide For Parents of Children With Language Delays. Toronto, Hanen Centre, 2004, 170 pp.
Canadian Paediatric Society. “Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world.” www.cps.ca