‘Talking’ is one of the biggest developmental milestones there is – just ask any parent. That first little word is extremely special, doesn’t matter if it’s ‘mama’ or ‘duck’ – you’re never going to forget the first time it’s said.
While the ‘average’ age for Baby’s First Word is around 12 months, the truth is, children hit language milestones at their own pace. A child that seems like a ‘late bloomer’ in the verbal department could have a huge leap in a short space of time, catching up to the children that have started speaking earlier. Some children may start to talk early on, but then slow down, and not add any new words at all for a while – speech and language development really is individual to each child.
There are 8 main factors that influence speech and language development in children. While it is a hugely complicated topic (and one which should be discussed with a speech-language pathologist, should you have any concerns), we can take a quick look at the basics, for interest’s sake.
1. General Health – Hearing problems may cause a delay in speech and language development, because the child has nothing to model his behavior on. Speech is not impossible, but it is a little more difficult to achieve. If your child or a family member or friend is hearing impaired, check out deafeducation.org for some fantastic information.
2. Intelligence and cognitive development – Certain cognitive issues could cause delays in speech and language understanding and therefore in speech and language development as well.
3. Learning and maturation – The body needs time to mature (vocal cords, speech organs, nervous system), and the child needs to be ‘taught’ to use these ‘communication tools’ by the people around him. We teach our child through our daily interactions, talking, babbling, praising when they babble in response, etc. The American Speech Language Hearing Association has some great ideas for easy age-appropriate activities to do at home with your child (birth to 2 years, 2 – 4 years, and 4-6 years).
4. Sex – During the first year of life, boys and girls don’t show any difference in language and speech abilities but, after their first birthdays, little girls tend to be slightly more ‘well versed’ than boys. Girls show a greater mastery of speech sounds and speak more fluently than boys.
5. Relationships within the family – Family dynamics (overprotective parenting, neglectful parenting, parenting by too many parties, being raised in foster care or in an institution as opposed to a family home etc.) can all have an affect on a child’s speech and language development. For example, an overbearing, authoritative mother might allow their children to speak less and as a result restrict their language development, while more ‘relaxed’ mothers may encourage the children to speak more.
6. Family size – There are two schools of thought on this one – One view is that only children develop ‘better, more correct’ language, because their parents have a chance to hear any mistakes the child makes and correct it. The second opinion (the one i tend to agree with) is that in a large family, a child will have more people to listen to, to learn from, to mimic and eventually, to talk to – and that their speech and language development progress along naturally at a healthy pace.
7. Bilingualism – While people used to think that raising small children bilingually caused speech and language delays, many experts are now fighting to get the word out that, while there may be an initial delay (a slight one), the delay is only temporary. Bilingual children still hit the same speech and language milestones as monolingual children.
8. Environment – An unstimulating environment, with very little language interaction happening, can delay the development of speech and language in children. They say that a baby should be hearing 30 000 words per day, and television does not count! I know, that seems almost impossible – but if you have a ‘running commentary’ going as you go about your daily business – ‘morning baby! How did you sleep? Let’s change that diaper. Okay monkey, give me your arm, let’s change your shirt… for everything that you do, you’ll see… you get pretty close. 🙂
Some of these are undoubtedly out of our control – those vocal cords are going to mature when they mature – but, there are a few things things you can do to help nudge your little one’s language development along.
Be loving, soothing and try to respond to your child’s cries as soon as you can.
Your newborn only has one sound – Wwaaahhh! This serves for everything, from ‘I’m hungry’, to ‘This room’s a little too cold’ all the way to ‘I want a cuddle’. It also helps your baby practice for all those conversations that she’s going to be having later on by exercising the larynx (the organ in the throat responsible for sound production) and by strengthening the same neural pathways in the brain that are used for speech. While it may be tempting to let your little one exercise her vocal cords with a good cry every now and then, the sooner you can soothe her the better. You child will feel more confident that you’ll respond to her calls, and will be more inclined to ‘talk’ to you whenever she needs or wants to.
Young babies (2 to 6 months)
Be loud (not too loud 🙂 ) and animated – inspire your child to copy the words you say and sounds you make.
At this age, your child is still figuring out how to use their tongue and lips. Sounds coming from the larynx are a little more automatic, therefore ‘easier’ for little ones to master. All those cute ‘coos’ and ‘gurgles’ are airy sounds that come straight from the larynx and help your child figure out how to control vocal tone and volume. Talk in a fun voice, so that your child wants to listen. Be animated, and try to make ‘speaking’ look like fun. If it looks like a game, your child will want to try too.
Older non-verbal babies ( 7 – 9 months)
Talk, talk, talk – Help your child build her vocabulary by narrating everyday situations.
By now, most babies are making ma-ma-ma sounds (those words that you don’t know if they’re actually words or just your child stringing fun sounds together – either way – doesn’t matter. Enjoy it 😉 ) Your child is probably adding in consonant sounds too – which is a major milestone- it requires a lot of interaction between the lips and the tongue. Describing things as they happen, and teaching your child the names of things as you interact with them throughout the day will help your child hear new sounds and new words, even if he is not talking just yet. It is important to use the same word for something over and over, so as to not confuse the situation. (If you’re raising your child in a bilingual household, each object should only have two names)
Babbling babies (9 – 12 months)
Encourage any chatting and don’t quibble over ‘correctness’.
Half way between babbling and actual talking, at this age, your little one may actually be creating their own words – ‘chug-goo’ for their favorite teddy or ‘ga-ga’ for a sippy cup. If you know what your child is trying to tell you, don’t worry about trying to correct them. Eventually it will phase out and the real word will slip into place.
Those first words (12 -18 months)
Keep chatting, and celebrate every new word.
The window for first words is large – both in when it happens, and in what the word itself is going to be. Of course, Mommy or Daddy would be great, but often, baby’s first word is a one syllable word – usually something that she’s fascinated by. Easy words like the ‘Da’ sound (or Dada), the ‘Ma’ sound (or Mama), ball, dog, yes, duck, bath etc. are much easier to say than multiple syllable words, which is why even though by now your child knows their own name, it probably won’t be their first word. Regardless what their first word is, be sure to make a big deal of it and every new word that follows. Clapping, cheering, a great big ‘Yay!’ all motivate your child to continue mastering new words.
Creative chatter (18 -22 months)
Keep the conversation flowing.
By now, most children have quite a few words (anywhere from 15 to 30) and are quite talkative. Along with answering simple questions (when they feel like it 🙂 ) and giving you an idea of what they want or need (in a very basic, one-word kind of way), your 18 to 22 month old probably creates some pretty magical nonsensical chatter. ‘Ga-loo-ka-ga-ba’ can mean just about anything. The best response is to ask a normal question, but keep things flowing. If your playing with your child’s teddies, ask a question about the teddies. Conversation is a great way to improve speech and language, and this is just a form of practice conversation.
Stringing words together (2 years and up)
Reward the advances in communication by giving your child the little things that they ask for (all within reason, of course 😉 )
But the age of 2, most children start string two or three easy words together to create short, simple sentences. The growing vocabulary, and the resulting use of 2 or 3 word sentences often reflects a child’s growing understanding that ‘speaking’ can make things happen. If your child says ‘More juice…’ try and accommodate the request where possible. Being able to tell you what she want is a huge accomplishment for your child.
Another great way to help your child develop their speech and language abilities is through play. There are some fantastic toys available nowadays to help our children build their vocabulary in a fun, stress-free way. The best toys for early speech and language development are those that create the opportunity for lots of talking. Your child should not just memorize words, but should rather use those words functionally in a variety of ways- asking for things, giving demonstrations, role play, problem solving, planning, etc.
Here are a few of my favorite toys to help with speech and language development, with a quick reason as to why i love each one. if you’re looking to get one for your family, all you need to do is click on the link. (Affiliate links)
1. PLAYMOBIL 1.2.3 Large Farm – This affordable farm set from Playmobil is made with larger pieces, and is safe for toddlers age 18 months and up. I love the bright colors and the endless options for creative play.
2. Ice Cream Shop Playset – Perfect for siblings or for play with Mom or Dad. Your child can ask for a variety of colors, flavors or toppings, as well as practice their greetings and bargaining and negotiation skills. The playset even comes with it’s own cash register, so your little one can practice counting too!
3. Playskool Mr. Potato Head Super Spud – Is the coolest Mr Potato Head ever! A giant mr Potato head, with a bunch of smaller ones and all their accessories inside. This is one toys that’s bound to provide hours of talkative entertainment and loads of super social play. There are just so many language opportunities with this toy – talk about body parts, emotions, clothing, size comparisons, prepositions, etc.
4. Hape – All Seasons Wooden Doll House – This has to be my favorite doll house ever! This is a great example of a speech development (and just pure fun) toy that can grow with a child over the years – younger children will be happy just chatting, talking about who or what is in the house, while older children will be interested in actually rearranging the furniture and creating their own situations between the people in the house.
5. Dress up sets – Dress-up is fun and allows for many great opportunities to learn new vocabulary. A doctor’s kit is fantastic for learning about our bodies and how to speak about how we’re feeling physically while a chef’s outfit provides a great opportunity for learning new food words. If your child has a natural passion for animals, a veterinarian’s outfit would be an extra special inspiration to get talking about their favorite animals.
And do not underestimate the power of a cardboard box! Your child can spend hours and hours playing with a simple cardboard box, in the most surprising, imaginative ways, allowing for tons of language learning opportunities. Keep that large box – it may just end up being the best present of all!
Remember – Not every baby is going to hit all the milestones at exactly the ”right” time. As parents, it’s natural to worry, but, it’s important to remember that the “normal” range for babies is huge – anything from 9 months to 15 months for the first word, for instance. Bilingual children may hit certain milestones slightly later because they’re processing two languages at once, but they usually catch up pretty quickly. Certain physical or neurological conditions (such as a stammer or Apraxia of Speech) may cause delays which need to be supported by a professional. 1 in 5 children will have some kind of language delay, but it is worth noting that the earlier you get help, the more likely it is that things will get back on track.
These are the 3 red flags to watch out for
- If your child misses any verbal milestones by month 4 – for example, she’s not cooing or reacting to your voice.
- If your child doesn’t have any recognisable words by the time they are 15 months old.
- If your 2 year old has not combined any words into a 2-word sentence.
If you suspect that there’s a problem, speak to your pediatrician about performing a hearing test. If everything comes back normal, he will advise you to consult a speech-language pathologist. Asha.org can help you find one in your area.
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