Speech is among the developmental milestones that parents are excited about. They look forward to the day their baby starts talking and even wonder what their baby’s first word might be: will it be “mama” or “dada”?
So, when do kids start talking?
Most babies say their first word within their first year of life. However, a child’s language development doesn’t follow a specific schedule, and you shouldn’t worry too much if they still haven’t said anything by their first birthday.
Around 10-20% of children can be identified as late talkers, but 50-70% of kids with speech delays catch up by the age of four. (1)
You might notice that your baby starts listening intently to what you’re saying and tries to imitate your words. They begin to copy and put sounds together.
Baby babbling and vocalization (e.g., making gurgling sounds) are your little one’s first communication methods.
Still, you might want to know what to expect in your baby’s speech development and when you should worry if your child isn’t talking. Is it a sign of autism and other developmental delay or just a temporary speech delay? Find out more below.
When Do Kids Start Talking?
Talking Isn’t Just About Speech
You might notice that baby talk doesn’t make sense during the first few months, but that’s normal because your little one is still developing their language skills.
Your baby tries to communicate by babbling with gibberish and cooing sounds.
When Do Kids Start Babbling?
Most babies begin to babble around six months of age, but some babies begin to make vocalizations at two to three months. (2)
Even when they’re “just babbling,” babies can begin to understand language at this age.
Significant Speech Milestones: Stages Of Development & Expectations
According to ASHA (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association), the following are the stages of a child’s speech development. However, most parents shouldn’t worry if their child doesn’t follow this timeline. (2)
Birth To 3 Months
- Smiles or listens when you talk
- Gets startled at loud sounds
- Appears to recognize your voice
- Notices toys or objects that make sounds
- Turn in the direction of someone talking
- Pays attention to music
- Appears to understand the tone of your voice
- Starts babbling
- Speech usually comes in short strings of repeated consonant-vowel sounds: “da-da,” “mi-mi,” and “ma-ma.”
- They might not fully understand the family structure and the names of other people in the house, but they often associate “ma-ma” with their mom or other primary caregivers.
- Understands more than they can speak (3)
- Babies begin to form multiple syllable strings, and most aren’t likely to make sense: “ba-ba-da,” “da-da-ma,” “ba-da-ma,” etc.
- Studies show that babies learn ordinary words through daily interactions. (3)
- The words they learn might sometimes mean different things. They could also associate certain words with a specific person or thing but can’t understand that it might be a broad term (e.g., “ma-ma” is their primary caregiver, but the term applies to many other moms). (3)(4)
12 Months: When Do Kids Say Their First Word?
Babies are more likely to speak their first words around their first birthday. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll start talking in sentences.
Sometimes, it takes some more weeks before your baby speaks a different word.
The Most Common Baby’s First Words
- Sibling name
- Pet’s name
What’s Next For My Baby? Increasing Their Vocabulary
They begin to widen their vocabulary with words they commonly hear at home, including common food items that are easy to say:
- Banana (they might say just “ba-na” or “na-na”)
- Milk (they might just say “mil” or “mik”)
Many babies might also mix the syllables or words up.
Should A 1.5-Year-Old Be Talking?
Yes. Most 1.5-year-old kids already know how to say a handful of words, including the most common ones (e.g., mama and dada), part of their name, and other commonly used words in the house.
24 Months: Should A Two-Year-Old Be Talking?
Yes. Toddlers this age are likely to have a vocabulary of 50-100 words they can understand and say aloud.
When Do Babies Speak In Sentences?
Your toddler can start making short two- to three-word sentences at around 24 months:
- “My milk.”
- “My toy!”
- “Mama, drink milk.”
- “Mama (their name) eat.”
There’s likely to be big progress in your baby’s development by this age. Most three-year-olds have a vocabulary of around 200-300 words and can string three to four words together.
Your toddler might also begin to explain concepts or tell short stories from their experiences or by repeating their favorite fairy tales (a shorter version, of course).
How Babies Learn To Talk
Starting In Utero
Studies show that babies can begin learning about speech even in the womb. It’s shown by how some newborns appear to differentiate between their native and foreign languages. (5)(6)
Your baby starts learning by observing, listening, and imitating what the people around them are saying.
You might even notice that they seem to understand what you’re talking about, especially simple words they frequently hear.
How to Encourage & Teach Your Baby to Talk
Talk To Them Constantly
- Just keep talking to your baby, even if they don’t seem to understand or are just answering in gibberish. They’re also learning to talk that way, mama.
Narrate & Use Visual Cues
- Start introducing them to words with visual cues: saying “toy” while handing them one or pointing to yourself and saying, “ma-ma.”
Elaborate, Speak Slowly, & Enunciate Words
- Some words or syllables are harder to say than others, especially when different consonants are blended in a syllable.
- Speak slowly and enunciate the words, particularly consonant sounds. For example, “gggrrrraaaaanddd-mmaaa” instead of “grandma.”
Call People By Name, Don’t Use Pronouns
- Your baby is likely to understand and imitate names when they aren’t confusing (like pronouns you use for everyone else).
- For example, say “da-da” or “daddy” (or other endearment terms) when referring to their dad.
Repeat Words & Hang In There
- Babies won’t immediately get it right, but continue teaching them how to talk by repeating words.
- Don’t give up trying to teach them because most babies eventually get the hang of it, and you’ll have a “conversation” soon.
Sing Songs (Simple Ones) & Nursery Rhymes
- Babies learn through imitation and will likely enjoy listening to nursery rhymes or simple songs with repetitive words.
- The songs you sing don’t have to be complicated or in tune.
- Babies can even enjoy it when you talk to them in a sing-song voice.
- Nursery rhymes and reading books are designed for babies. These aren’t just for entertaining your little ones but also for teaching them how to talk.
- Read simple sentences out loud.
Listen & Let Them Respond Or Imitate
- After saying some words, stop and let them respond or repeat what you said.
- Listen to them talk or check for non-verbal responses, such as making gestures or doing eye movements.
- Instead of just waiting for them to respond, encourage your baby to imitate your words by making eye contact and repeating the same word several times.
Let Them Lead
- If your child tries to talk, stop and listen. Try to make conversation.
- Even if they’re just babbling, clap your hands and praise them. It can encourage them to continue “talking.”
Play & Have Fun
- Learning how to talk shouldn’t be limited to specific lessons.
- You can also do this while playing and having fun with your baby using their toys or even during bathtime.
Turn Off Gadgets & TV
- Studies show that TV exposure and screen time, especially if more than 7 hours a day, can cause speech delays and language problems. (7)(8)
- Although there are TV or online programs and apps, researchers believe there isn’t a substitute for non-screen methods of teaching babies and toddlers how to talk.
What’s Considered A Late Talker?
Babies are considered late talkers if they utter their first words at 1.5+ years or if they only know around 25 words by two years of age.
Signs of Speech Delay: When Should You Worry & Seek Help?
Watch for these signs that might indicate problems in your child’s speech development: (2)
- By two months old – doesn’t react to sudden, loud sounds
- By four months old – doesn’t make sounds, such as cooing
- By six months old – doesn’t make simple vowel sounds (e.g., “ah,” “eh,” or “oh”), babble (“ma-ma,” “da-da,” or “ba-ba”), laugh, or make other sounds
- By nine months old – doesn’t babble or respond to their name
- By 12 months old – doesn’t say single words (e.g., “mama” or “dada”)
- By 15 months old – doesn’t understand or use simple words like “bye-bye,” “no,” or names of people in your household
- By 18 months old – their vocabulary is less than five words, and they don’t learn new words
However, your child isn’t automatically diagnosed with DLD (developmental language disorder) even if they exhibit the signs above. It’s still possible that they’re just having a language delay problem.
Other Important Concerns
- By 21 months old – signs of problems with their receptive language skills (understanding language, such as being unable to follow simple instructions (for example, “come here”)
- By 24 months old – knows some words but is babbles most of the time, doesn’t put two words together, and can’t identify basic body parts
What to Do If Your Baby Isn’t Talking
It’s important to seek help from an ASHA-certified audiologist or an SLP (speech-language pathologist) to get the right diagnosis and intervention.
You can also check for signs that your child can hear: turns to noises or makes eye contact when you’re talking.
What You Shouldn’t Worry About
Note that kids master language skills at different ages. Even at 36 monthsof age, their words aren’t likely to be perfect.
You might notice that they’ll only start pronouncing difficult consonants like d, n, and t around this age.
Why Speech Delay Happens
Hearing Difficulties Or Loss
- Congenital hearing loss (present at birth)
- Head or ear injury
- Ear infections can also lead to hearing loss, which can be temporary or permanent. (9)
Other child health issues or diseases that can affect hearing: (10)
- German measles
Language Delays & Speech Impairment
- Cleft lip or palate
- Ankyloglossia (tongue-tie)
- Other structural issues in your baby’s mouth
ASD & Developmental Delays
Certain conditions, particularly ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), can lead to developmental delays, including comprehension and speech development. (11)
What Are The Signs Of Autism In A Two-Year-Old?
According to the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics), these can be signs that your child might have ASD: (11)
- Avoids eye contact
- Doesn’t have expressions (“huh” or “uh-oh”)
- Doesn’t recognize mother’s voice (or other family members and primary caregivers)
- Lack of expression in their gaze
- Doesn’t use pre-speech gestures (e.g., pointing and waving)
- Starts babbling only at around 9+ months of age
- Shows awareness of environmental sounds but doesn’t respond to own name
Tests & Diagnosis: What Healthcare Professionals Check
A speech-language pathologist evaluates communication issues that might affect your child’s speech and language development:
- Language comprehension
An audiologist runs tests to check for hearing impairment which can cause speech delays.
Your pediatrician screens for possible issues that hamper language development and progress: (12)
- Language Development Survey
- Ages and Stages Questionnaire
- MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory
Treatments & Interventions
Treatments can vary depending on your child’s symptoms and the underlying reason for the speech problem: (12)
- Speech-language therapy sessions
- Assistive technology (if necessary)
(1) Moyle J, Stokes SF, Klee T. Early language delay and specific language impairment. Dev Disabil Res Rev. 2011;17(2):160-9. doi: 10.1002/ddrr.1110. PMID: 23362035.