This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Alexis Lieberman, the founder of Advocare Fairmount Pediatrics, in Philadelphia. She has been a pediatrician for over 25 years, as well as a parent, and brings her experience and openness to new ideas to her patients, practice, and reviews.
When you’re a new parent, you’ll find yourself looking forward to a million little milestones. The first time baby rolls over. The first time baby smiles. The first time baby crawls. The list goes on and on and on! But you’re probably especially eager for one particular milestone: baby’s first word. So, when do babies start talking? And how do you know they aren’t just “babbling”?
Before we go any further, there’s something you should remember as you read this article, Mama: The point at which babies reach developmental milestones like talking can range greatly from child to child. If your baby isn’t hitting these milestones at the exact timeframes referenced, don’t fret, no two babies are alike. Just give your child’s pediatrician a call with any concerns you might have.
Now, let’s take a closer look at when you might be able to expect baby’s first words.
When do “mama” and “dada” count?
While we all want to believe our babies are prodigies the first time they coo “Mamamama” at mere months old, the more likely truth is that your little one is probably babbling.
Before babies reach the baby talk stage, they experiment with sound. Cooing often begins by the end of three months — a sweet, sing-songy vocalization. At six months, your baby might start forming sounds into what almost sound like words. “Ba-ba,” “da-da,” “Mama.” Alas, at this age, your baby is typically just stringing together random consonant sounds without meaning.
Don’t let that diminish your joy for these moments, though! This precursor to talking is still something to celebrate. And some studies show that babies can associate “mama” with you as early as 6 months old. Plus, babbling, cooing, and even crying are all ways in which your baby is trying to communicate with you.
How do you know when a baby is getting closer to talking?
Around nine months old, you’ll probably notice a shift in babies babbling to include more syllables. So, instead of “mama” and “dada,” they might babble “ma-ma-ma” or “ba-ma-da.” Fun fact? Babbling at this stage sounds basically the same no matter what language you speak!
Also, it’s around eight or nine months that babies often master another important language development step: pointing. Yes, this is a non-verbal step, but it falls under language development since it shows your child is engaged with their environment and trying to share that experience with you.
So, when do babies really start talking?
Baby’s first birthday is a monumental occasion in and of itself. But it’s also an exciting time because you may actually hear baby’s first word (or words). Between 12 and 18 months, babies start to use words that have meaning. Instead of babbling “dadada,” they might point to Dad and say “Dada.” By the time your little one reaches 18 months, they may have anywhere from eight to 10 words in their arsenal.
Don’t be upset if “Mama” or “Dada” are not actually the first words, though. For many babies, words like “water,” “ball,” or the name of a favorite toy are the first real words they use. Don’t worry though, before you know it they’ll be yelling “mommy, mommy, mommy!” from the other room at full volume.
How can you help your baby talk?
To put it plainly, you show them how it’s done. Talking to your little one is one of the best things you can do to help foster their language development. It’s hearing the rhythm of words and watching their parents’ lips move that babies process and learn language. And while “baby talk” won’t hurt your child, you should also make sure you’re speaking plainly to your baby, too.
Describe what you’re doing, whether it’s changing baby’s socks or getting out a jar of baby food. Repetition is your friend; hearing words and phrases more than once helps reinforce their meaning. The more language they’re exposed to — and the more expression they see tied to that language — the better.
If your baby is walking around, up the ante and give them commands. Tell your little one to bring you their shoes or put the blanket on the couch. They might listen to you and if they don’t, show them. Again, it’s important to narrate what you’re doing.
Singing is also a great way to push your young one to speak. Your singing doesn’t have to be good, but it should be clear and something you do often. You also want to read to your child regularly. When they’re younger than three months, it can be anything of your choosing, like a magazine or novel. But after the three-month mark and as they continue to get older, engage them with rhyming books or bright pictures. Teaching them nursery rhymes is also a great way to get them to latch on to something simple and pleasant for their brains.
Does baby sign language help with communication?
Just because your baby isn’t talking yet doesn’t mean they don’t want to or can’t communicate with you. This could be the perfect opportunity to introduce simple sign language signs into their “vocabulary.” Words like “eat,” “more,” “water,” “please,” and “sleep” are super easy to teach with some repetition and will reduce tears and frustration-caused tantrums as your baby can let you know exactly what they’re in the mood for now.
Parents can continue adding to their child’s sign language vocabulary as they get older, especially if they haven’t yet mastered communicating more complex words verbally. Every child’s verbal skills develop at a different pace so sign language can be an extremely helpful tool for parents and caregivers as babies enter toddlerhood. It might also avert tears and tantrums caused by frustration at a child’s inability to explain what they want.
What to do if your baby doesn’t talk?
Listen, being a parent is nerve-wracking. You’ll find countless things to worry about every single day. So, we’re not going to tell you not to worry — you will anyway. But we will reiterate that babies can develop language skills at different paces. If your baby is hitting pre-language milestones like cooing, babbling, gurgling, and pointing, they’re likely on the path toward their first words. In fact, many babies who take a little longer wind up having a word explosion at some point.
Your child’s pediatrician will look for signs of speech and language delays during your well-checks. In between those visits, you can keep an eye out for red flags as well. Signs of speech and language delays in babies can include a lack of response to parents’ voices or name being called (the latter after nine months), absence of startle reflex over sounds, and incoherence once they do begin “talking.”
Should you notice any of these signs, or have concerns in general, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s doctor. They’re there to help.