Speech development in babies happens at each child’s own pace. Yet, knowing what’s normal and what’s not can help you identify any problem well in time.
“It is a smile of a baby that makes life worth living.”
Do you remember the first time you saw your baby smile at you? The way she looked at you, recognized you were here first true love and then smiled that beautiful toothless smile. It’s a unforgettable moment for any Mom or Dad!
Smiling is one of the ways babies communicate with us, the first way being crying. Whether it’s because he needs to be fed, changed or just held, the only way an infant can get that message across is by screaming at the top of his lungs. When he learns that crying will get him what he wants, it starts becoming two-way communication. And it can take a while for a new Mom to ‘decode’ these cries – many confused first-time parents often say, “I wish he could just say what he really wants!”
Well, your little one will soon start talking to you, but speaking is a complex process that involves a certain level of physical development, particularly control of the jaw, the lips and the tongue. Let’s take a more detailed look at the various milestones your baby will hit on the way to speech development.
Difference between Speech and Language
People often use the terms speech development and language development interchangeably, but they’re actually not the same.
Language is the combination of words, grammar and the entire system of putting across thoughts in an understandable fashion. Language has different aspects, including verbal, non-verbal, written as well as through a set of signs.
Speech, on the other hand, is the expression of language in the verbal form. It is the sounds we make, that in a controlled form create the words that are part of the language. Speech happens when all the muscles of the jaw, tongue, lips and vocal chords work together to produce meaningful sounds.
In children, speech develops first, as a baby starts learning to make various sounds using his mouth and voice. As the brain and muscles develop, the child starts understanding that certain sounds mean certain things and this is the start of language development.
In general, speech development and language development go hand in hand, but understanding the difference between these can help in case of any developmental delays. Identifying the exact area of the problem will make treatment much faster and easier.
Facts about Speech Development in Babies
- By 6 months, most babies can recognize the basic sounds of their mother tongue
- Even premature babies in the NICU respond to adult speech
- The average age of saying a proper ‘word’ for the first time is 12 months
- Girls tend to start speaking earlier than boys
- Developmental delays and speech disorders are more frequent in boys
- Children in bilingual households may have a slight delay in speech development
- 1 in 5 kids will have some kind of a speech or language developmental delay
Milestones of Speech Development in Babies
Important: These are general guidelines of speech development in babies, but every child is different and achieves each milestone according to his or her own schedule. These guidelines should give parents a general idea of how their baby is developing and take note if there is a wide gap between what the baby can actually do and what is expected of that age.
- Reacts to loud sounds
- Recognizes parents’ voices
- Calms down when spoken to
- Stops sucking on hearing a sound while feeding
- Makes cooing noises
- Cries differently for different needs
- Smiles at parents’ faces
- Turns eyes or head towards source of sound
- Focuses when music is played
- Pays attention to toys that make sounds
- Looks at the face of the person talking
- Responds to a change in the tone of the speaker
- Makes cooing and gurgling sounds when playing alone or with someone
- Babbles to express emotions – uses sounds like p, b or m
- Has more reactions other than crying, like laughing or giggling
- Actively turns and looks towards the source of sounds
- Likes playing games like peek-a-boo
- Responds to instructions like “Come here”, “Give Me”
- Responds to his or her name being called
- Listens when spoken to, for a slightly longer period
- Looks if you point at something
- Understands common words like ‘No’, ‘Cup’, ‘Shoe’
- Babbles strings of letters like ‘bababa’, ‘pupupupu’
- Makes noises to get someone’s attention
- Communicates by waving, pointing, reaching up or shaking the head
- Tries to copy sounds made by others
- Says a word or two like ‘go’, ‘baba’, or ‘mama’
- Likes to listen to simple, short stories and songs
- Understands simple questions like “Where’s Dada?”
- Follows simple instructions like “Give me the toy”
- Identifies some parts of the body by pointing when asked
- Points to objects and pictures of objects correctly
- Uses more consonants like n, m, p, h at the beginning of words
- Combines words in sentences or questions like, “More milk”, “Where doggy?”
- Asks for common objects using the correct names
- Acquires new words on a regular basis, with a vocabulary of 50 words
- Understands opposites like ‘up-down’, ‘big-small’
- Learns new words quickly
- Follows more complex instructions like “Drink your milk and give me the cup”
- Has a word for almost everything and uses 2-3 words in conversation
- Answers questions with the correct words
- Talks about things not in the room
- Uses k, g, f, t, d, and n sounds
- Uses more pronouns, “mine”, “his”, “hers”
- Understands descriptive words like ‘happy’, ‘cold’
- Uses plurals and past tense
- Leaves off the ending sounds of words
- Can be understood by family members but not strangers
- Hears his or her name being called from another room
- Listens to the TV at the same volume as the rest of the family
- Enjoys humor and nonsense like “There’s an elephant in my bag!”
- Says most consonants, but may have difficulty with l, r, s, sh,ch, y, v, z, th
- Identifies colors, shapes and relationships, like father, mother, grandmother, brother
- Has more detailed conversations about daycare, friends, or the world around
- Uses sentences with four words or more
- Is more descriptive about objects and feelings
- Uses present continuous tense like ‘walking’, ‘talking’
- Repeats complete sentences
- Strangers can understand most of what is said
- Listens to short stories and answers questions about it
- Understands nearly all conversations at home and school
- Follows complex instructions with multiple steps
- Is able to easily communicate with kids and adults, even strangers
- Tells short stories with more detail
- Says rhyming words like ‘cat in the hat’
- Identifies some letters and numbers
- Groups or lists similar items like animals, birds
- Understands order like first and last
- Has a concept of time like today, tomorrow
- Uses more correct grammar
- Answers questions beginning with ‘Why’
- Has a vocabulary of around 200-300 words
These guidelines are very generic and it is perfectly normal to hit some milestones sooner and some later. Some children might start off talkative and then show a lull before picking up again. Some children may start out slow but suddenly become very chatty.
Genes also play a role. If either parent was a slow starter, it’s likely the child will also be a late bloomer. Children in bilingual families also take longer since they have to process different languages at the same time. However a wide variation in reaching expected milestones may indicate a developmental delay.
Developmental Delays in Speech
Just as speech and language development are different, speech and language disorders are also different, but they may show some overlap. For instance a child with a developmental delay in speech might be using words to express himself, but my not be understandable. On the other hand, a child with a language development delay may be able to say words correctly, but may have trouble joining them and making intelligent sentences.
There are many causes for speech development delays, and the most common one is a general delay. The first 3 years of a child’s life is a critical period for speech development, when the brain is developing at a rapid pace. Lack of sufficient language exposure during this stage can stall both speech and language development.
Another important reason is a hearing defect, which can affect speech. Some children may have structural deformities, like problems with the tongue, palate or frenulum.
Besides these, any kind of cognitive or mental impairment can affect speech, since it can make it difficult for the child to coordinate all the muscles required to produce intelligent speech.
Signs of a Speech Developmental Delay
Your child may have a speech or language developmental delay if he or she displays any of the following signs at his or her age.
By 3 Months:
- Doesn’t smile
- Doesn’t engage or play with other people
By 6 months:
- Doesn’t make babbling or cooing sounds
- Doesn’t turn toward sounds
By 12 months:
- Makes only a few sounds
- Does not use sounds or words to ask for something
- Does not use gestures to communicate like waving or pointing
- Doesn’t respond when being called
By 18 months:
- Finds it difficult to understand simple instructions
- Doesn’t say any recognizable words
- Uses more gestures rather than words
- Has difficulty repeating sounds
By 2 years:
- Uses only a few words or sounds to communicate
- Is unable to combine two or more words together
- Doesn’t communicate other than for urgent or immediate purposes
- Has trouble following instructions
- Is hardly understandable when trying to speak
By 3 years:
- Repeats the first syllable many times, like ‘c-c-c-c-cat’
- Takes a lot of time to say something
- Stretches words out
- Sounds like he or she is speaking through the nose
The general guideline is that by 2 years of age, at least parents and close family or caregivers should be able to understand approximately half of everything the child says. By 4 years, the child’s speech should be intelligible enough for strangers to understand.
Common Speech Disorders
1. Stuttering – Stuttering and stammering affect the flow of speech. Here, the child may repeat the first part of the word several times before proceeding with the rest of the sentence. It can get worse when the child is under stress.
2. Lisping – Lisping is when the child substitutes certain letters he can’t pronounce with others. For instance a child who has trouble saying ‘s’ or ‘z’ may replace it with ‘th’ and end up saying ‘thorry’ or ‘thebra’.
3. Cluttering – Cluttering affects fluency of speech, where the child may suddenly speak and suddenly pause – their entire speech appears ‘jerky’ and disorganized and makes it difficult to express themselves.
4. Apraxia of Speech (AOS) – In AOS, the patient is aware of what he or she wants to say, but is unable to say it. The reason is a loss of connection between the brain and the speech muscles, where the brain cannot send across the message to the muscles even if they themselves are fully functional.
5. Dysarthria – Dysarthria is caused by nerve or muscle damage, which results in speech that is slow, slurred or in a strange rhythm. Patients may also have trouble moving their jaw, lips or tongue.
6. Hyponasality/Hypernasality – These are disorders related to the sound produced as the voice passes through the throat, mouth and nose. The voice often sounds ‘nasal’, since either not enough voice energy passes through the nose or too much passes through.
7. Alalia – This is the most generic kind of speech delay, where the cause could be anything from a simple delay to a problem in brain function.
Speech development can also be affected by genetic disorders like Down’s Syndrome or other developmental or learning disorders like Autism.
If you suspect a speech developmental delay in your child, talk to your pediatrician who will be able to assess the child accurately. If there is indeed a delay, you may be referred to specialists in the area of child speech development, like a speech-language pathologist or a developmental psychologist.
Tips to Encourage Speech Development in Babies and Kids
Parents have a big role to play in ensuring that a child’s speech and language develop the normal way. Since the first three years of a child’s life are the most significant regarding speech development, make the most of this period to ensure your baby develops normally. Here are a few tips on what you can do at every stage.
Talk to your baby at any chance you get, and don’t be afraid to use your ‘baby voice’, also called ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’. Infants notice and respond to that high pitched voice, so talk to your baby and sing lullabies often. If you like, you can also try baby sign language with your little one.
As you carry baby around, show her what you see and talk to her about it. Tell her about how you’re getting her dinner ready, or about all the flowers in the park. It may seem a lot like a one-sided conversation, but be assured your baby is avidly listening. If she does respond to your chatter, be sure to encourage her by saying something back.
Let your baby use her own words and her own language to talk, and don’t bother correcting her every word. However, use the right words when you’re talking without making it sound like you want her to repeat it. If she says, “doggaa”, you can say, “Yes, here’s your doggy”.
Continue talking to your child at every opportunity you get, and start including new words. Show her how to follow instructions and offer lots of encouragement when she executes them successfully. Pick out board books with limited text and lots of pictures and talk about each picture in words she’ll understand.
Ask your child simple questions and keep the conversation going by answering hers too. It’s a great time to teach manners when your child asks for something, and practice asking her to give you something too. Interactive games and nursery rhymes go well with this age group. Continue speaking in simple, but complete sentences and try not to put too much pressure on the child to learn. Check out our post for more tips to encourage toddlers to talk.
In general, the more opportunities you create for your child to talk and listen, the better the speech development. Avoid the TV playing in the background, and self-proclaimed educational DVDs don’t really help. If using screen time, do it together, and talk to your child about what you’re watching. Although books beat TV any day, and you can start right when baby is born!