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Speech and language milestones in children: What parents need to know

One of the joys of watching a child grow is seeing how they learn to communicate. Going from a baby who doesn’t seem to do much besides cry and sleep to a walking, talking machine is an incredible process. Sometimes, however, that process gets held up for one reason or another. It could be a developmental disorder, or simply a slower rate of growth for that particular child. Thankfully, there are milestones we can look to for guidance.

General patterns based on age

Every child is different, but listed below are general patterns we look for based on age.

Age 0-1

  • Communication begins as early as 0-3 months, starting with eye contact with a caregiver and responding to noises and cooing.
  • Look for simple gestures such as waving, shaking head “no” and raising arms to be picked up.
  • Babbling starts between 6 and 9 months, typically with “baba,” “mama” and “dada.” It’s worth noting that these sounds might not indicate their parents yet, but could just be repeating back what they hear.

Age 1-2

  • Actual words begin to emerge with an expected vocabulary of about 15 words by 18 months of age.
  • Words are used to label things, to make requests, and to comment. Imitation of words also becomes more consistent.
  • Children should be able to follow simple directions, identify simple body parts and point to familiar objects and pictures when named.

Age 2-3

  • Vocabulary should reach between 100 and 200 words and include nouns, verbs, pronouns and negatives.
  • A child at this age can identify objects by function, respond to yes/no questions, and understand spatial concepts like “in,” “on” and “under.”
  • People should be able to understand them about 50 percent of the time.

Age 3-4

  • Vocabulary should be at least 300 words, with the ability to form sentences and answer questions.
  • They can understand more complex directions, identify colors and parts of an object.
  • People should be able to understand them about 75 percent of the time.

Warning signs

You should consider talking with your pediatrician about your concerns if you see the following:

  • Minimal to no eye contact with others
  • Limited words, or no words at all by 18-24 months of age
  • Little or no attempt to communicate with others
  • Unable to follow simple directions, or not seeming to understand the names of things
  • Frustration at being unable to communicate, resulting in tantrums, hitting or biting

How parents can help

Talking to your child can be some of the best medicine. Naming objects and actions will help enhance their vocabularies, as will requesting that they do the same. Children learn through imitation, so create a language rich environment that provides models to imitate. Create routines in which language is involved, saying “up” every time you go up a stair, saying “bye” to every object you clean up, etc. Expand on your child’s utterances by adding another word. For instance, if they say “dog,” you say, “Hi, dog.” Being involved in your child’s play can make a huge difference.