From cooing to drooling to babbling, here's what to expect during their first year+
We’re breaking down the four stages of speech development and what you can expect as a new parent.
When will my baby start talking? It’s a question all new parents ask, and rightfully so. You spend every waking moment taking care of your infant without *much* reciprocity. At least in the beginning stages.
Studies show that all normally developing infants will go through approximately four main stages of early speech development before speaking their first real words.
During the first two months parents typically experience the expressions of discomfort. These discomforts are expressed through crying or fussing. Around 2-4 months infants begin to make comfort sounds. These comforts are often expressed as coos. Around 4-7 months, babies engage in non speech-like vocalizations and vocal play. They start to test their pitch and loudness, as well as sounds that include: burps, hiccups, yawns, blowing a raspberry with their lips, et cetera.
And then, at 7 months, that’s when things really start to get exciting.
The Babbling Stage
Marginal Babbling and Your Baby
At this stage, your little one is eager to talk to you. This is easily one of the most entertaining periods during your baby’s first year, as they are really starting to experiment with their voice. They’re making all sorts of silly sounds.
Around 7 months, your baby should be in what is often described as marginal babbling. This is when your baby is beginning to annunciate different vowels and consonants. For example, you will hear things like ‘maaaaaa’, ‘baaaaaa’, ‘daaaaaa’, followed by a mumble-jumble of other sounds, bubble and raspberry blowing, and drooling.
You’ll get to enjoy those moments when it seems like your baby is telling you a very detailed story filled with emotional highs and lows. It’s not just in your head, scientists at the University of Washington have found that the parts of the brain associated with motor planning for speech (Broca’s area, cerebellum) light up when a parent is speaking to the baby — indicating that the baby is already trying to figure out the physical mechanics of responding.
Fun fact: You may notice that a few weeks before your baby begins babbling, there is an uptick in their arm movement. Increasingly, researchers are finding a link between changes and development with motor skills and language milestones. You may see you infant do more shaking, waving with their arms before they start marginal babbling.
Researchers have found a value in “babytalk,” or infant-directed speech. You may feel a bit batty speaking to your baby in slow and exaggerated speech — aka “parentese” — but apparently, stretching out your speech may help babies imitate what they hear and see, and get them closer to their first words.
More fun facts: Infant-directed speech is produced in many birds and mammals. And new research shows that bat mamas also use parentese, or motherese, when communicating with their baby bats. The function of such vocalizations appears to have the same purpose in the animal kingdom, as it does for humans: mediate social interactions and influence the vocal development of offspring.
Not so batty afterall.
Canonical Babbling and Your Baby
Babies all over the world produce the same kind of early canonical babbling sounds. It is a type of early, syllabic babble that combines a consonant and a vowel. This occurs during the developmental period between 7 and 10 months.
Babies begin to make syllables, such as “ba ba” or “di di” that include a consonant and a vowel. You baby might also vocalize combinations of different syllables, such as “ma di da.”
This babbling typically has little communicative function, but is still a major milestone in your baby’s speech development. These sounds are the markers of the sounds your baby will use when they begin using words. Though all infants start making the same marginal babbling sounds, as they get older and synaptic pruning begins to take place, babies babble only using the sounds they hear around them.
The holophrastic stage, also known as the one word stage, occurs between approximately 11 months of age and 1.5 years of age. At this stage most babies produce a few, single words and many sounds that will sound familiar from the babbling stage. However, the words are much more language specific– compared to the babbling you’ve grown used to hearing.
At this age, your baby knows which words will grab your attention: namely, mama and dada. They will overuse it.
Scientists have also discovered that words with repeating sounds are easier for babies to say. This ability is “hard-wired ability is hard-wired inside the human brain to recognize repeating sounds.” However, children also tend to over-generalize word with objects. All four-legged creatures might become “dog.” At this stage, children will also use one word to express a whole meaning. For instance, “go,” or “car,” will become indicative of an entire thought. They might also be using one word to express multiple meanings. “Milk” could mean a variety of emotions– they want milk, they’ve spilled milk, they see milk.
At this stage, the number of holophrastic phrases your baby can say depends on you. Your baby is developing words through association and experience, so it is important that you are interacting and talking to them on a daily basis. One easy tip is to narrate your day. Even the most basic narration helps your baby develop a wider lexicon.
The Two-Word Stage
Your baby’s speech is really starting to come along. They will speak in one word “sentences” for a couple of months, but then! It’s go time. Two-word utterances will emerge and stick around until they are about 2.5.
These two-word utterances are usually in the form of noun-noun or noun-verb. Speech examples include, “me go,” “doggie bark, “mama here.” At this stage, a child’s vocabulary usually develops to around 50 words. Then it will take a dramatic leap forward. This speech spurt is commonly referred to as the “word spurt.” This is the term scientists use to describe the sudden onset of language that most children achieve around 18 months.
The two-word stage only contains content words. That means no function words (determiners, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, modals, qualifiers, and question words) or morphemes (the smallest meaningful unit in a language). However, your baby is beginning to develop an understanding of the different rules of some words and how to use these words. They’re actually developing their own understanding of how to categorize words they hear from adults.
Welcome to the final stage of speech development! Guess what? There is no three-word stage! The final stage is called the telegraphic stage, and begins roughly at 2.5 years of age. Children at this stage are developing language skills and vocabulary much faster as they have worked on understanding the basics of language. They might even be expanding their vocabulary by as many as 10 to 12 new words a day. This is also where the “wh” questions begin: Who, what, where, why, why, why, why?
During the telegraphic stage, you’ll notice that your child has a much better understanding of syntax and semantics. Their sentences will generally follow the order of the subject, verb and object, such as “doggie bark me,” which is both cute, and shows that your baby is understanding how to give a sentence meaning.
They remain in this stage until they development language fluency.
“Speech and Language Developmental Milestones.” National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 15 July 2020, www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/speech-and-language.
“Language Development: Speech Milestones for Babies.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 7 Mar. 2019, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/language-development/art-20045163.
“States of Language Acquisition in Children.” Linguistics 001 — Lecture 23 — First Language Acquisition, www.ling.upenn.edu/courses/Fall_2019/ling001/acquisition.html.
Thangham, Chris V. “Scientists Know Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ Are Baby’s First Words.” Digital Journal: A Global Digital Media Network, 28 Aug. 2008, www.digitaljournal.com/article/259128.