Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Quick Guide: Infant Language Development

Parents of infants often wonder if their child is “on-track” and developing at a normal rate.  We compare our children to those in our child’s day school, playgroups or neighborhood.  When our child hits a milestone before his peers, we silently (or not so quietly) cheer and conversely grow anxious when we notice other child developing skills before our own child.

Fear and boast not fellow parents!  Below you will find a quick guide to help you understand language development in the first year of life.  Every Intelligent Nest knows that all children are unique and will consequently develop at their own rate and in their own way.  Use this guide as a helpful tool, but address any concerns with your pediatrician.

The guide lays out important milestones in language development sequentially beginning at birth.  Keep in mind that language development involves more than just being able to speak “actual words”.  Each milestone lays the groundwork for the next.

Language Development in the First Year

Baby Cries: Crying is baby’s first active form of communication and is often heard first at the moment of birth.  They cry due to fear, fatigue, discomfort, boredom, anger and hunger.  An adult’s quick response to crying communicates that babies have power and can correct their problems through communication, laying an important early foundation for language development.

Eye Contact: Eye contact is an essential early tool of communication and is possible starting from birth.  Around the world, eyes are known as “a window into the soul” for a good reason.  Offering eye contact when you communicate with your baby is crucial for their language development and bonding, as well as other areas of development.

Native Language from Foreign Language: Newborn babies, as young as 2 days, can distinguish between their parent’s native language and a foreign language.  Scientists believe that babies begin learning their native language in utero and are therefore ready shortly after birth to decipher between familiar and novel languages. By 8 to 10 months babies begin ignoring sounds from other languages to hyper-focus on their native tongue.  One month old babies are thought to be able to recognize novel languages better than their parents.

Cooing: Babies begin to “coo” between 1 to 2 months, as an early sign of approval of a caregiver and contentedness. 

Smiling: Like adults and children, babies smile to communicate happiness.  While most early “smiles” are due to gas, infants as young as 3 weeks are thought to smile at the sound of a human voice.  By 12 weeks you can count on being able to elicit a genuine smile from a baby.

Name Recognition: Babies are able to hear and recognize their own name as belonging to them as young as 4 or 5 months of age.  This is amazing feat if you stop to consider that one requires a sense of self (apart from mom) and their own existence to be able to associate a label to their being.  Babies are little philosophers!

Raspberries and other silly sounds: Babies as young as 3 months begin fiddling with their vocal apparatus.  They discover what fun it is to make noise.  Parents will hear shrill shrieks, gurgles, coos, raspberries and more as babies experiment.  Babies have been observed to practice making sounds more when adults are present to encourage their efforts.

Babbling: Between 6 to 7 months babies usually begin to make “real” language sounds.  Babbling is when babies repeat the same syllable over and over.  Mamamamama  and gaagaagaa.  By 8 months, babies began to mix it up a bit and will be able to combine different sounds into “words” and “sentences”.  For instance, “ah-goo-ba-da” or “maa-bee”.   Sometimes “real words” emerge during babbling, but mostly, babies are just practicing and gearing up for the next phase of language development.  By 10 months, a baby’s babbles will reflect the cadence of her native tongue.  Even when a baby can speak “real words”, he will continue to babble for months following.

Sounds, Order & Rhythm: Between 6 to 9 months babies go from: hearing language as a constant stream of verbal input to organized units or words; they begin to retain sounds or words that are useful and forget sounds that unimportant; and they begin to decipher which rhythms or order of sounds belong to their native tongue.

Pointing: Although babies begin to practice how to point as young as one month old, a true point does not emerge until the baby is ready to make eye contact and point at the same time in an attempt to connect a meaning with their gesture.  This typically happens between 9 to 12 months.  Usually, babies that point sooner, speak sooner. Pointing is typically a baby’s first gesture.

Gestures: Babies are able to sign or gesture their thoughts starting between the ages of 9 to 13 months.  Prior to a baby being able to sign “eat”, “milk” or “play”, they must understand cause and effect.  Meaning,that when you do action x, it results in action y (ex. I want milk, I sign “milk” and receive my milk in return).

First word: An infant’s first year of language development culminates at the utterance of his first real word.  She will speak her first word between the ages of 10 to 18 months, but typically around 12 to 13 months.  A child’s first word “counts” when meaning is attached to it’s utterance.  Babbling “mama” is not a child’s first word.  However, if a baby looks at mom in the eye while trying to get her attention as says “mama”, it is considered the first word.  Most babies say their first word around the time that they learn to walk.  True speech cannot happen before a baby’s body is physiologically ready to create sounds and neurologically ready to process meanings and connect them with physiological movements.  Prior to 10 months of age, words do not have meaning to infant, but merely associations that coordinate with objects (ex. horns honk, trains toot and cats meow).  

Vocabulary: Babies usually comprehend around 50 words by the time they are 12 to 13 months old, although they may not be able to verbally speak words or may have up to a handful of spoken words.



How Babies Talk by Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek

Child Development, 13th Ed. by Santrock

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