Along with that first smile and those first steps, your baby’s first words are an event that every parent looks forward to. Your baby’s first words are also an important developmental milestone that your baby’s pediatrician looks out for. You should expect to hear those first words somewhere after 7 months and before one year.
As you might expect the first words will probably be “dada” and “mama.” Those may be the words your baby hears the most but they are also the types of words babies hear first. Over time all cultures have learned that that babies will use repeated syllables as their first words, and that is why the words for mother and father are similar in all cultures. They include words like “mama,” “dada,” “papa” and “baba.”
Brain scans show that these two-syllable, repeated sounds light up the speech areas of the brain in infants as young as 2 to 3 days old. Other types of sounds do not register. If a baby is right-handed, speech areas in the left front (frontal) and left side (temporal) of the brain respond.
The Natural Progression of Speech Development
The first three years of life is a critical time for development of speech and language. Speech develops only when there is exposure to words, lots of words. That’s why it is important to talk, sing, and read to your baby. Although it is impossible for a parent not to use some “baby talk”, it is important to use words the right way with the right pronunciation, since your baby will learn what he or she hears.
The first thing your baby will do is have a voice. This is not the same as having words. Your baby will use voice to cry when hungry or when wanting comfort. You will start to recognize that different types of crying mean different things. Your baby may not be speaking but he or she will definitely be communicating.
Between 4 and 6 months, your baby should react to your speech and recognize music. Your baby will use voice to babble and make sounds that start with p, b, or m. Your baby will communicate happiness with laughter.
By 7 months to 1 year, you should hear those first actual words. By age 2, your baby will start asking one or two-word questions, by age 3, two or three-word phrases, by age 4, your baby will be talking and communicating with lots of words. You may long for some quiet time.
What If Those First Words Are Delayed?
Like all developmental milestones, there is a lot of variability between children. Your baby may be an early walker and a late talker. But your baby’s doctor will be keeping an eye on speech and language development. They are not the same thing.
Speech is the ability to make sounds. Language is the ability to communicate with words. If your baby is behind in either area, the first step will probably be a hearing test. The specialist to test and work with your baby for hearing problems is an audiologist. If hearing is fine, your baby may have a speech or language disorder. To evaluate and treat these problems, you baby may need to see a speech pathologist.
Most children with hearing, speech, or language disorders can be helped. The important thing is to recognize these problems as soon as possible. Problems recognized before age 3 are a lot easier to treat than in later years.