When do babies start talking? Here’s what parents and caregivers can expect

Aug. 7, 2020

“Mama,” “dada,” “ball”— no matter what baby’s first word is, to parents and caregivers, it feels worthy of a ticker tape parade (or at least a family happy dance). On the flip side, though, when a child isn’t saying much — while, say, a friend’s baby seems to have a better vocabulary than some teens — it can feel unnerving. But should it be cause for alarm? While concerns should always be discussed with your pediatrician, as long as a baby has generally been on-track with earlier communication milestones, they may just be moving at their own verbal pace.   

“When it comes to infants and babies, there are a number of early speech indicators, including cooing and responding to voices,” explains Dr. Sara Siddiqui, a pediatrician and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at NYU Langone’s Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital in New York. “Parents will typically start to see some verbal signs of communication from their babies as early as 3 to 4 months.” In other words: Those adorable noises babies make after waking up in the morning? That’s the speech before the actual speech.

Wondering if your kiddo’s verbal skills are on track? Here, parents and experts offer insight, tips and advice.

When do babies start talking?

While your baby won’t be forming any words within the first month of their life (or for a while thereafter), they will start communicating with you very early on. “Babies start showing signs of speech and early communication as early as 2 weeks,” explains Siddiqui. “Pediatricians look for eye contact that baby makes with parents and their physician when they’re in the office at this point. And at around 5 weeks, we start noticing babies’ ‘social smile,’ which is a definite response to a parent or caregiver’s voice.”

According to Dr. Nick DeBlasio, a pediatrician at the Pediatric Primary Care Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, parents can expect their baby to start making some real noise (other than crying!) a few months after birth. “Most babies will start cooing, which consists of vowel sounds, around 2 months of age,” notes DeBlasio. “At around 6 months, babbling usually begins. This is when babies start forming consonant sounds, such as ‘baba’ and ‘dada.’ In general, though, first words emerge between 9-15 months.”

How many words should a 1-year-old say?

When it comes to how many words a 1-year-old should say, there isn’t a hard and fast rule. But generally speaking, most babies’ vocabularies are still fairly sparse at this point. “We estimate that a 1-year-old should have just a few words,” says Siddiqui. “Pediatricians look at and discuss babies’ receptive speech [understanding what people say] and expressive language [their output of speech] at all well-visits.”

Keep in mind, though, every kid — and sibling — is different. “Recently, I was looking at videos of my kids’ first birthdays, and I realized how far ahead my first daughter was than my son and my younger daughter at that point,” says mom of three Amy Toomey of Middletown, New Jersey. “My son kept saying ‘yay!’ when we gave him his cake, but my daughter practically sang ‘Happy Birthday!’ They’re all smart kids who talk nonstop now, but my oldest definitely took to talking the earliest.”

 

What is the earliest a baby can talk?

According to DeBlasio, the earliest that first words can emerge — “and actually be a word, not just a sound” — is around 9 months. Of course, he notes, there are exceptions to every rule. “Every kid is different, and some can still surprise you!”

While nine months may seem like a long time to hear those hotly anticipated first words, babies communicate with parents and caregivers long before then. “Smiling, fussing, crying — these are all ways your baby ‘talks’ to you,” Siddiqui notes. “In fact, different cries may express different needs, which are all early language and communication skills.”  

What is a late talker?

By the age of 20 months, children should have about 20 words, according to DeBlasio — and both DeBlasio and Siddiqui agree that 2 years old is a crucial time for language. “By age 2, a child should have at least 50 words and be starting to put words together,” DeBlasio says. “Most kids will have a language explosion between 18-24 months, but generally, I worry if I’m not hearing about 20 words by the time a child reaches 20 months.”

Age 2 is also when kids start developing a better understanding of what you’re saying. “In addition to putting together two words in sentence form, 2 is the age where toddlers should be able to understand multistep commands and repeat and say sentences or phrases,” explains Siddiqui. “If speech seems delayed or receptive and expressive language has not developed, 2 is commonly the time early intervention or speech therapy is indicated.”

How can I encourage my baby to talk?

Even if your baby hasn’t yet proven to be a conversationalist, talking to them is still crucial. “Talk to your child all day long — in your normal way of speaking, not baby talk,” says DeBlasio. “Talk them through the activities of the day as you are doing them. Sing songs, encourage imitation of sounds and most importantly — read, read and read!” 

Siddiqui agrees that reading — and showing them pictures — is key in encouraging babies to talk. “This, along with allowing for different types of speech with different intonation patterns, will help children develop pattern recognition and early language skills,” says Siddiqui.

And there’s no such thing as starting too soon. “Parents and caregivers should be encouraging communication from a very early age,” says Siddiqui. “I recommend parents and caregivers start speaking to infants frequently with pauses in between questions, to allow for back and forth communication.”

Here’s an example of a “conversation” with a 3-4-month-old baby:

Parent: How is my baby doing this morning? (Pause for answer) 

Baby: (Looking)

Parent: (Pause)

Baby: (Smiles and coos a bit)

Parent: “Oh, so you had a good night, my love?” 

Baby: (Smiling more and more responsive cooing) 

“This is a normal speech pattern as early as 4 months,” says Siddiqui.

When should you worry if your child is not talking?

Since 18-24 months is generally when kids have language explosions, it’s definitely worthy of a conversation with your pediatrician if they’re not saying much in that time frame — particularly if they’re not able to put two or more words together. “If words really aren’t picking up between 18-24 months — especially by 20 months — talk to your doctor,” says DeBlasio. That said, there are earlier milestone red flags to look out for, as well. 

According to Siddiqui, the following should be reported to your pediatrician: 

  • No eye contact by 6-8 weeks. 

  • No smiling by 6-8 weeks. 

  • No cooing at 4 months. 

  • No babbling by 6-10 months. 

While, again, it’s important to keep in mind that every baby develops at their own pace, concerns about your child’s speech should always be discussed with your doctor. “Parents should contact their pediatrician for any issues related to speech and communication,” says Siddiqui, who adds that if a child isn’t talking much by 2, they can be referred to a speech therapist for an evaluation.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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