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Encouraging speech development in babies Children's Wisconsin

Goo-goo, gaa-gaa: Encouraging speech and language in your child

From baby babble and cooing to saying mama and stringing a few words together, watching your baby’s speech develop is so fun. Parents often wonder how they can help their baby develop speech, and many times they worry their baby’s speech is not developing on track. 

Please know, all children develop at their own pace and parents should try and avoid comparing your child to others. Your child’s pediatrician will be the best one to determine if your child is within typical milestones. They will keep an eye on their overall development, and if they see something out of the ordinary, they will discuss it with you.

With speech, the good news is there are a number of things you can do to help your little ones develop. Speech develops best in an environment that is filled with sounds, sights and consistent exposure to the speech and language of others.

What you can expect

Birth to 5 months: Babies will cry, coo and react to noise. 

6 to 12 months: Babies will begin babbling and will likely say their first word. They may say mama or dada, but it likely won’t be directed at mom or dad early on. Babies might take turns making noises with you and blow raspberries. 

12 to 18 months: By this age, mama and dada should be meaningful and directed at mom or dad. They will probably have a few words for people or things, even if the pronunciation isn’t perfect, such as “tat” for cat. Babies in this age will try to imitate your speech. By about 18 months, your child should know about four to six words. 

18 to 24 months: Speech will take off quite a bit from here! Their vocabulary will increase to about 40-50 words. Remember, pronunciation might not be perfect, but it will be consistent for what they mean. Your child may string together two words and start making animal sounds like “moo” for cow. The often possessive “mine!” may begin at this age, too. 

2 to 3 years: Speech becomes more developed and a little less mispronounced, although some people may not understand, which is normal. Your child may have sentences of three or four words and should be able to answer questions simply. 

That covers general guidelines for the first few years, but as I said, all kids develop at their own pace and your pediatrician will know best if your child is on track for developing speech and language. 

Tips for encouraging speech

Reading: From birth, you can read to your baby. Reading has so many benefits! It is one of the best things you can do for your baby to develop speech. By reading, you expose your baby to more words and help them increase their vocabulary. Reading is also a great way to bond with your child. Try reading every day to your baby until they are able to read on their own. Then, let them read to you! Reading is a lifelong skill. Read this blog post my colleague wrote on how to get your kids to love reading. 

Use sign language: Sign language gives your baby a way to communicate before they have words. You don’t have to be an expert in sign language. YouTube has videos that can help parents with a few basic words such as “more,” “please” and “all done.” Just a few words in sign language can help babies express themselves before they have actual words. It also gives them the confidence to try to start forming words. 

Just talk: Yep, it’s as simple as that. Talking to and around your child shows them how it’s done. It may seem funny or awkward to talk to a child who can’t talk back, but the more you talk and express yourself, the easier it’ll be for your toddler to learn language at a younger age. If your child is in the room while you’re making dinner, talk about what you’re doing. As you get your child dressed in the morning, narrate what is going on. 

Offer choices: When your child is a little older and may be able to say a few words, you can offer choices as a way to encourage speech and language. For example, at meals or for snacks, you can say, “Would you like milk or water?” When playing, “Would you like to play with the ball or the book?” They might start by pointing, but you can gently encourage them to use their words. 

Add on: As your child starts to speak using one word, repeat it back and add on. For example, if your child says “milk,” you can ask them, “Do you want milk?” This encourages dialog, gives your child encouragement that you’re understanding what they are saying and helps them recognize sentences. 

Speak clearly: As your child starts to talk, it’s pretty unlikely they will say things perfectly. I think the way kids start to say words is one of the cutest parts of their development, but be careful not to repeat their mispronunciation.  For example, if your child points to a cat and says “tat,” you can say “you’re so right, that is the cat.” You’re adding on as the above guideline encourages and you’re modeling the correct way to say it. Also, do not stop them to correct them or point out that they’ve mispronounced a word. Instead, continue to model the correct way through natural conversation. 

Singing: I love music and singing is another way to introduce new words and language. You can make it silly by singing into a brush or your thumb to mimic a microphone. Try singing a bit more slowly so they can understand what you’re saying. Repeat songs and, after a while, you can let them fill in the blanks…think “row, row, row your…..” and let them say “boat.” Bonus! Music and singing can be a mood booster. 

Beware of screens: Screens are prevalent. From our phones to iPads to TVs, screens are a mainstream part of life. Don’t fall for videos that claim to help kids with speech. Real human interaction is best. But there is a way you can use a screen to help encourage speech! Try a video call with grandma and grandpa or another important person in your child’s life.

There are many ways to encourage speech and language in your child, these are just a few. If you’re worried about how your child’s speech is developing, mention it to your pediatrician. We are the best source for knowing if your child is meeting appropriate milestones, like speech.