Children know a lot about language long before they say their first word. Therefore speech and language delays can, in many cases, be prevented with the right kind of interaction.
But first, we need to understand the basic characteristics of early speech and language development.
Read to find out exactly how your baby is acquiring language during the first year of life. And what can you do to help her out!
Stages of early language development
Baby listens (Newborn to 2 months)
At the beginning of baby’s life, she comes to this world fully capable of hearing.
Actually, your baby was able to hear your voice and louder sounds from the outside world for the last few months of the pregnancy. It is no surprise then that within few hours of birth she can recognize mother’s voice and shows a significant preference for it.
During this stage, however, babies are not so much concerned about the content of the speech.
They listen mostly for the rhythm of language and the intonation rather than particular words.
This is the first step in language development.
Listening carefully to spoken word around her, your baby’s brain is categorizing and distinguishing different sounds and tones of the mother tongue. Within the first few months of her life, she will be able to tell the difference between the language of her parents and other languages.
Other articles on Planes & Balloons for you to read:
- 22 Places to Go with Babies: Fresh Ideas for You to Enjoy
- 10 Ways to Prevent Your Baby from Becoming a Picky Eater
- Educational Baby Toys: The Ultimate List for Unplugged Childhood
- 15 Outdoor Activities for Infants: Why Outside Time Matters
- 6 Amazing Benefits of Reading to Babies: Why Starting Early Matters
Beginning of social skills
Even babies under two months of age can be social.
They learn to establish an eye contact with their caregiver and even start to imitate. Just try sticking out your tongue at your little one and you will be surprised with his response.
During this stage, babies learn to turn their heads towards caregiver’s voice. They produce long vowel-like sounds such as “ah” or “eh” for their own pleasure.
Parents seem to communicate to newborn babies in very similar ways. It is very common to see a mom or dad holding a baby and making all kinds of silly faces. Lifting eyebrows, opening eyes and mouths wide, pursing lips. All of this teaches our babies about non-verbal components of language.
Ways of communication
The main way of baby’s communication at this moment is crying.
Newborns cry a lot! Sometimes just to release tension, other times because of pain or discomfort.
They use different cries for different needs. Moms are usually pretty good at telling what the problem is.
At the end of this stage, however, something beautiful happens. Baby learns to smile intentionally. He is able to lock his sight on your eyes and give you his first short smiles as a sign of joy. Just then a whole new mean of communication has been established.
Activities for 0-2 months old
- TalkingTalking to your baby A LOT is a great way to set him on a path of successful language development. What should you talk about? Everything! Greet your baby when you come into the room and talk to him about everything you are doing. Daily routines, plans for the day, family members, pets, and places you are going to, etc. Switch between high-pitched and low-pitched voice to keep your baby interested.
- SingingYour baby will definitely enjoy hearing you sing. Don’t worry if you can’t sing that well, she won’t mind one bit. Singing lullabies can help soothe your baby and if you add a gentle sway to it, she will be thrilled!
- Nursery rhymesNursery rhymes are a great way to introduce your baby to the rhythm of language. Read “Jack and Jill” or “Humpty Dumpty” to your little one and look for enjoyment in his face. I highly recommend getting Mary Engelbreit’s Mother Goose nursery rhymes book. The 100 traditional verses accompanied by beautiful illustrations will become your baby’s favorites for years to come.
- Reading booksIt is never too early to introduce your baby to books. Read my other article on how reading benefits babies. Settle into comfortable, a cuddling position with your baby. Choose a book with baby nursery rhymes or board books with black and white patterns. You can even read magazines or newspapers, as long as you are reading aloud. Some really good first books include 101 Nursery Rhymes & Sing-Along Songs for Kids, The Sleepy Little Alphabet, or The Baby’s Lap Book. No matter what books you choose, just remember to enjoy this special bonding opportunity with your baby. He will feel love and happiness during your storytime which will, later on, turn into a passion for books and reading.
Baby observes (2-4 months old)
Baby at this age has grown out of the newborn stage. She is more alert and awake for longer periods of time.
Her vision is also improving. She can focus her sight up to eighteen inches and can now follow the movement of objects.
This being said, improvement of vision gives us new opportunities for language development. How? We have a whole new array of things we can expose our baby to. For example, picture books, household objects around us, etc.
Baby talk vs. Parentese
Babies are still attentive listeners at this point. They tend to respond to “parentese” better than regular speech. What is “parentese” or “motherese” as some researchers call it?
Caroline Blakemore and Barbara Ramirez¹ have distinguished between “parentese” and “baby talk”.
Parentese is a natural way of speaking to babies by their parents – with higher pitch voice, melodious tone, shorter sentences, slower pace, and a lot of repetition.
On the other hand, baby talk is an actual change in the words spelling to make them sound more childish. They are not real words and are actually harmful to infant language development.
Through “parentese” however, a baby is able to acquire and process a lot more words than from regular adult speech.
Now don’t get confused when somebody says that sounds like “moo” “woof-woof” or “swoosh swoosh” are babytalk and shouldn’t be used. One time I read a mom complaining about this on her blog. They are a part of normal language development. Before a baby can say a full word for cow or dog, she can name them with sounds they make. And that’s great! A 10-month-old can hardly pronounce “cow” correctly but can easily say “moo”. That’s why nursery rhymes are full of noises and sounds! Just take “The wheels on the bus” for instance.
Ways of communication
Your baby attends to your talking mouth intensely. She enjoys watching you speak or read and seeing the facial expressions you make. So make sure you talk plenty and that your baby can actually see your face while doing so.
Babies also tend to be intrigued by their own voice and oftentimes entertain themselves by “cooing” for quite a while. This is an important exercise of their vocal cords. Babies between three and four months old have quite the repertoire of sounds. You can distinguish vowels from consonants in their vocalizations and their new sounds include “m” “n” “b” and “p”.
By the age of four months, a baby learns to recognize his or her own name. It is the first word they learn. Make sure you say it often throughout the day. You will be so happy the day you call your baby’s name and she will look right at you!
Another important skill she is learning is taking turns in conversation. When you stop speaking your baby responds by the cutest little “coos”.
Encourage this by having short exchanges and let her talk back to you. She will be delighted!
Your baby needs you more than anything right now. She needs you talking, laughing, singing, and touching her so that she can develop important social skills.
Baby’s sociability is growing as well. She can hold an eye contact for longer periods of time and gives genuine smiles when pleased.
From your speech she is learning about first emotions – sad and happy and soon will be able to tell the difference.
By the end of four months, she also develops laughter.
Play this imitation game. Sit closely to your baby, let her see your face, look into her eyes and repeat after her. Then pause, give her a chance to respond, then imitate again.
Carry on conversations with your baby every chance you get. Use different voices, soft or loud. The more you talk to your baby, the more talkative she will become. Call her by name often to help her distinguish it from all the other words.
- Puppet game
Make a simple sock or plate puppet and move it closely to your baby’s face. Make funny noises, use lots of words and move it all around, make it dance, etc. You will help your baby with visual tracking skills as well as keep the conversation going.
Sing to your baby often or play songs with strong rhythms. During the first year, babies enjoy music and rhythm a lot. Tap to the beat, clap your hands, snap fingers, or shake rattles. Your baby will eventually learn to do this on her own and find a lot of enjoyment in it.
Finally, your baby can see more details. This is an amazing opportunity for you to introduce illustration books, which can inspire many more conversations. We have a bunch of books just with animal pictures in them. Sometimes when I just can’t think of anything interesting to talk about, I pick one animal and tell my boys everything I know about it. Cows, cats, dogs, chickens, all of them have their own stories to be told. Remember: When choosing books, go for books with bold colors or exciting illustrations. You can even find books that ask for hand movements like Itsy Bitsy Spider or Counting Kisses. Books like Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? not only teach different animal sounds but have big illustrations to catch your little one’s attention.
The Cooing Baby (4 – 8 months old)
A baby at four months has become more active and aware of his surroundings. He is actively searching for your voice and actions to collect information and meaning.
Everything your baby hears and sees at this point will be stored in his brain cells for later use. How amazing!
At four months your baby has reached an important milestone – recognizing his own name. Furthermore, by seven months babies understand more words already. And the learning continues at enormous speed. The more often you use certain words, the better chance your baby will learn them.
Furthermore, by seven months babies understand more words already. And the learning continues at enormous speed. The more often you use certain words, the better chance your baby will learn them.
And the learning continues at enormous speed. The more often you use certain words, the better chance your baby will learn them.
Remember all that listening your newborn was doing? As a result, he can now tell the difference between home language and other languages. He can also discriminate basic emotions hidden in your tone – sad, happy or angry.
From now on your baby is an active “talker”.
He vocalizes more and more and enjoys the attention it brings. If you hold your baby and make eye contact, he will reward you with his happy “coos”.
By seven months he will start “babbling” and his speech will remind you of real words – “mamama” “dadada”. However, these vocalizations don’t stand for the meaning we are secretly hoping for. He is not yet calling mom or dad.
When you are talking closely to your baby, he is fascinated by the movements and sounds coming out of your mouth. He will try to grab it as if he was trying to physically capture your words. And better yet, he will try to imitate this movement and sounds sequences.
His vocalizations resemble real speech with changes in rhythm, volume, and rate. You can catch your baby playing with a favorite toy and talking away as if he was having a conversation with it.
- Mirror time
If you have an unbreakable mirror, hang it in your child’s view. Mirrors are one of their favorite activities at this age. He will be engaged for a while with the baby in the mirror talking and reaching and trying to get it to respond. My boys enjoy smiling and waving at the baby in the mirror to this day.
- Naming games
Inside or outside, our environment is full of intriguing objects. Name the objects as your baby shows interest in them. Take him for a little exploring time into the kitchen or bathroom and show him different things while naming them.
When having a conversation with your baby, change the volume of your voice. Whisper few sentences and see how she reacts. Then talk again with normal voice, and whisper again. Chances are she will find this really amusing!
- Talking cups
You can use any plastic cups for this game. For example, we have a set of stacking cups (simple toy from Ikea). One way to play with them is to talk into them. Your voice will change and your baby will find this interesting. If you play this game often enough he will try to imitate you.
- Face of stone
When dressing your baby or changing a diaper, stop talking and keep your face perfectly still. Watch how your baby tries real hard to get you going again.
- Older friends
If you have an only child, invite some friends with older children over. Your little one will love to watch and even try to imitate what the older kids are doing. He can observe and participate in interactions that are typical for children (as oppose to adult-child interactions).
Continue reading to your baby! Use expressive voice and dramatizations to keep your baby engaged. Make sound effects for things you are reading about such as animals, vehicles, and actions. Let your baby actively join you with his babbles. Ask him questions or respond to him. Name as many objects as possible from the books over and over again to help him build vocabulary.
Babies of this age enjoy touch and feel books (Beddy-Bye, Baby: A Touch-and-Feel-Book). When reading these, take it slowly and help your baby explore different textures. They also like books about daily routines such as bath time or bed time (Bears in the Bath), and books that label objects (Barnyard Banter). You can also provide your baby with some old magazines he can examine and tear apart (always supervise since he will try to eat the paper).
The Babbling Baby (8-12 months old)
A baby of this age has already learned many things. All of her skills are improving.
She can grab, hold and explore objects with improved motor skills; she can sit still and pay attention for longer than ever before and understands certain words.
When you say mommy, daddy, car, dog or other words you use often, she actively searches for them and even points to them.
She understands the meaning of some words around 9 months of age such as “no” or “come here” and other commonly used words.
Babies around one year old can understand around fifty words. They are still very intensely absorbing many words each day and store them in memory for later use.
At the end of this stage your baby’s “babbling” will contain most of the speech sounds. You can hear “da” “gu” “ba” and all kinds of variations. She is preparing to put these together and create first words within the few following months.
She actively repeats words after you and sometimes they even sound as if she got them right!
If you have been reading a lot about animals, now she understands the sounds animals make. When looking at a cow, she will try to say “moo” instead of a “cow”. Her talks are accompanied by gestures and pointing and she looks like she has a lot to say.
By first birthday she is ready to say her first word with the correct meaning (e.g. “dada” “mama” “ball” “dog”). This varies greatly from child to child, though, so do not be alarmed if your baby doesn’t seem to have her first word just yet. It might be just hard to recognize from all that babbling she is making!
- Toy telephone
Use a toy telephone or a real phone if you prefer and play with your baby. Take turns in talking on the phone. Say phrases like “Hello, who is there?” and let your little one imitate you.
- Tube talk
Similar to cup talk, use a paper tube from paper towels and talk to your baby. Make funny sounds and give your baby a turn. She will enjoy making her own sounds or even repeating after you.
Make sure you sing songs that are accompanied by hand movements. For example “The wheels on the bus” or “Itsy Bitsy Spider” are good old classics that your baby will enjoy.
- Finger puppets
Just watch the face of your baby lit with excitement once you pull out the finger puppets! The frog, the bunny, the mouse… They all come to life and tell her a story, ask her questions, and make her laugh. You can make simple ones from felt or buy some. I bought ours at Ikea for a few dollars and it was definitely money well spent!
If you have been reading throughout your baby’s first year, the results can be seen already. She has her favorite books and is able to pick them out from a bookshelf or box. You can see her sit and attend and actively engage while you are reading together. Turning pages and pointing to objects in the book is a must while reading. Most of all she enjoys books for her own pleasure. You can often see her sitting and looking at books even without your involvement. At this stage your baby can see details of illustrations clearly, therefore, you can choose even more complex picture books. She will enjoy books that name objects, toys or parts of the body (Best First Book Ever! is a great option). It is also time to introduce books that explore space concepts such as under, inside, next to, etc. Books that invite children to repeat a word or phrase (Where’s Spot) are also a good choice.
The most important takeaway
If you are going to remember anything from this article, let it be this:
Talk and read aloud to your baby from day one!
In addition, limit or completely avoid (recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics) screen time for your baby. It is harmful to language development. I have personally seen the effects of too much TV time first-hand with many of my former clients.
If you have any concerns about your child’s speech and language development, seek out professional medical help.
This post is solely educational. It doesn’t serve as a medical advice in any way. You are responsible for your own actions.
Segal, Marilyn M. Your child at play Birth to one year: discovering the senses and learning about the world. New York : Newmarket Press, c1998. 342p. ISBN 9781557043306.
¹Caroline J. Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez: Baby read-aloud basics fun and interactive ways to help your little one discover the world of words. New York : AMACOM, c2006. 246 p. ISBN 9780814473580
Mary Engelbreit Mother Goose One hundred best-beloved Verses. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0060081716