From Baby Babble to "Mama": 8- to 12-Month Language Milestones

Bev Feldman
June 8, 2017

As your little one nears her first birthday, you'll see an exciting shift in her language. Baby babble will give way to more purposeful sounds and imitative gestures, as your baby shows a better understanding of verbal and nonverbal communication.


Do you ever notice how all the baby babble you hear sometimes sounds curiously like she's having a conversation with you? All the rising and falling tones in your little one's baby babble is her way of starting to show she understands language.

Though her baby talk might not mean much now, at 8 to 12 months, her vocalizations will soon start to transform into recognizable sounds, and she will start to imitate words that she hears. She'll also start to regularly communicate nonverbally through pointing and gestures. She may even start to say some words such as "mama" or "dada," which you'll love. Even though she can't talk right now, she understands much of what she hears.

And read  our guide to developmental milestones for kids

Language Milestones

During this time, your baby is starting to make more purposeful sounds. You may even hear her say words by accident such as "mama," though she does not yet quite understand what these words mean. Don't worry, though, if your baby doesn't seem to really have any words yet. "Twelve-month-olds might say a few words but are not necessarily saying many words," says Dr. Janis Halpern, who has worked as a pediatrician for nearly 30 years and is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. At this age, she's imitating the sounds she hears and is experimenting with them, which may lead to saying a couple words.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adds that your child is starting to use nonverbal modes of communication, pointing or gesturing to something she wants or waving hello and goodbye. If you sing a song with your child that involves gestures, such as clapping, you may see her start to imitate them. "If they are used to little songs with gestures, they might do some of the gestures, which is a form of communication," says Christine Doucet, an infant specialist and program coordinator at the Center for Families, who has worked with babies for over 15 years. Doucet also notes that, toward the end of this period, your baby might sign some words if you have been teaching your baby sign language.

How Can You Help?

You can help support language development through singing, talking and reading to your child. As Dr. Halpern points out, reading books to her, from the newborn stage on, really aids in language development. Ask her lots of questions and react when she does communicate. For example, as Doucet suggests, if you see your baby point to a dog, you can say "Do you see the dog?" If you're a reading a book and there's a picture of a dog, ask your child to point to the dog. If the baby babble resembles a word, such as saying "da" when she sees a dog, reinforce that by saying, "That's right, that's a dog!"

Even though your baby cannot yet speak, she understands a lot of language, though it may take her some time to process what you're saying. For example, if you tell her to wave bye-bye, she might not wave until after the person has left the room. "They understand way more than they can express," explains Doucet. "When you ask a question, it still takes time for them to think 'What is the answer to that?'" Don't be worried if your child doesn't always respond when prompted.

Since your baby needs extra time to process what you're saying, give her a little time to respond. Communication is a give-and-take process, and you can help your baby understand this. "It's the wait that is important -- that's the back-and-forth. Sometimes we ask questions and we don't wait as long," says Doucet. If your child does respond, even if it is delayed, be sure to acknowledge it. For example, if your baby waves bye-bye to a person after the person has left the room, you can say, "You are waving bye-bye to Daddy!" You should also describe the world to your child, using many words and explaining what is happening. Instead of saying "There's a car," you can say, "There's a red car. It is driving down the road."

This period can be an exciting time as your child starts to show more of an understanding of language. You can encourage your baby's language development through lots of talking and singing, gestures and hand games, back-and-forth communication and positive reinforcement.

For more milestones, check out this Overview of Milestones from 8 to 12 Months.

Bev Feldman is a parent and blogger in the Boston area. She has a master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a background in early childhood education and parent support.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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