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First Sounds and Words: Baby Language Development

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Updated on Jan 9, 2012

The first year of your baby's life is packed with milestones and memories that you dash to document for the baby book. Among the many firsts—first smile, first laugh, even first steps—are some of the most exciting changes: the first words. While it'll take more than a year for your child's vocabulary to grow, important baby langauge development occurs during the first year of life. All of that babbling might sound like gibberish to you, but those sounds are actually laying the groundwork for your little one's language development in the next few years. All babies advance at different rates, but certain language milestones during the first year act as a way to gauge your baby's proper growth and development when it comes to communication.

  • 0 to 3 Months. Your baby's still learning to connect the sounds she can make with the reactions you have, so most crying and cooing is for practice only. At first, the most important milestone is that your child shows awareness when you're talking. Near the end of the first three months "an infant will start to use different cries to express their wants and needs such as hunger or a diaper change," says Melisa Brown, a Speech Language Pathologist for Miami Children's Hospital. As a parent, you'll quickly learn to differentiate between an "I'm hungry" wail and an "I'm bored" cry.

    You can help your baby begin to develop your baby's communication skills by responding quickly to her cries. There's no worry of "spoiling" a baby so small, so fulfilling her needs promptly actually encourages her first communication efforts.

  • 3 to 6 Months. All of that time and effort you put into naming your child will pay off during the next few months, as your baby learns to recognize her moniker. She'll show you by stopping and looking for the speaker when she hears her name called. During this time, she'll also start making her first sounds. In fact, when you talk to her, she'll try to repeat back some of the sounds you make with babbles and coos. These vocalizations are a vital part of baby language development and are the beginnings of her first words.

    Help your baby along by talking right back to her. When she makes vowel sounds, gently coo back at her so she can hear the sounds she's making. She might even reward you with a gummy smile!

  • 6 to 9 Months. While it might sound like she's showing a preference for "da da," it's really just a way or repeating back the vowel sounds she hears from you and your partner on a daily basis. Your baby will start to put sounds together in long strings of "talking." She'll also learn to connect words with certain gestures, especially if you practice baby sign language together. Waving goodbye becomes a delightful party trick and you'll probably reward your brainy baby with clapping—which she'll also try to mimic.

    This is the ideal time to start baby sign language, if you choose. Start with three or four basic words and use them regularly, and your baby will soon try them out for herself. If you don't want to try sign language, work at pointing things out when you say their names. Narrate your daily actions and talk as much as possible to foster her language development.
  • 9 to 12 Months. Where's baby's nose? She'll be able to show you proudly as she begins to identify key body parts and words that you use on a regular basis. As your baby gets to know you and your temperament better, she'll be able to discern between how you sound when you're calm and happy and how you sound when you're angry or upset, sometimes causing the same reactions in your little one. Finally, all of those late nights and diaper changes pay off when she finally utters "mama" and "dada" to describe you and your spouse.

    Break out the Mother Goose and start with lullabies—listening to rhymes and songs helps to engage different parts of your baby's brain during key development. She's likely old enough to clap and "sing" along, making for great bonding time between the two of you.

It's important to remember that while milestones are used to check for proper growth and development, they aren't the only way to determine your child's progress. Some babies simply talk sooner than others.

If you're worried that your baby is missing out on key developmental stages during the first year, talk to her pediatrician. Brown notes that parents should be concerned "if [their] child is not responding to sounds or their name consistently, if they are demonstrating a difficult time producing a variety of vowel sounds and consonant vowel sounds, and does not appear to be interested in interacting with others by using eye contact or not attending to a speaker."

It's never to early to start conversing with your baby, even if all you hear back are a succession of "goo's" and "ga's." Get the video camera ready, because some baby language development milestones can be a blink-and-you-miss-it step in your child's first-year growth.

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