Chat­ter box: Baby’s first words

Await­ing your baby’s first words is an ex­cit­ing time. Michelle Ran­dall tells you what the norms are and when you should worry

Your Baby & Toddler - - News -

AC­CORD­ING TO HE­LENA Oosthuizen, from the divi­sion for speech, lan­guage and hear­ing ther­apy at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity, most chil­dren will start us­ing their first words at around 12 months of age.“but chil­dren will gen­er­ally start ex­per­i­ment­ing with mak­ing var­i­ous sounds be­tween four and seven months,” she says.

Some­times th­ese bab­bling sounds might sound like real words – like “mamma” or “dada”, for in­stance. “How­ever, the dif­fer­ence be­tween first words and bab­bling is that first words are used spon­ta­neously by a child in a mean­ing­ful con­text – like say­ing ‘baba’ when she finds her favourite doll or used con­sis­tently to re­fer to the same thing in the same con­text.”


“Typ­i­cally de­vel­op­ing chil­dren go through pre­dictable stages as their speech and lan­guage de­vel­ops, and the rate of de­vel­op­ment will vary from child to child,” He­lena says. Dur­ing the first three months com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­sists of cry­ing, re­flex­ive sounds from burp­ing or yawn­ing, coo­ing and laugh­ing. Be­tween seven and 12 months, ba­bies be­gin bab­bling by string­ing con­so­nants and vow­els to­gether to form words like “adada” or “ababa”. “Dur­ing this time ba­bies will start echo­ing what mom or dad says or us­ing long strings of con­so­nants or vow­els that mimic sen­tences, but are not mean­ing­ful in the adult lan­guage.”

From 12 months, a child will usu­ally start “speak­ing” in a mix­ture of real words, jar­gon and bab­bling. He­lena adds that “first words have a spe­cific func­tion and are used in spe­cific sit­u­a­tions, like ex­press­ing thirst, hunger or the need to

use the toi­let.”

At 18 months, most chil­dren ex­pe­ri­ence a vo­cab­u­lary spurt, where they ac­quire many new words each week, and will start to put two or more words to­gether to build sim­ple sen­tences (like “bad dog­gie”, “baby not eat”).

“Th­ese sen­tences slowly be­come more com­plex, and as their vo­cab­u­lar­ies ex­pand, chil­dren be­gin us­ing prepo­si­tions, ex­pres­sive words, or words to de­scribe ac­tions,” He­lena says. HOW DOES BABY LEARN TO SPEAK? Phys­i­cal learn­ing He­lena points out that the weight of a baby’s brain triples dur­ing the first two years of life, reach­ing nearly 80% of its adult size in a very short time. “As the brain ma­tures and be­comes more or­gan­ised, baby starts gain­ing vol­un­tary con­trol over large mus­cle move­ments like grasp­ing and ma­nip­u­lat­ing ob­jects with her hands. Breath­ing also be­comes more con­trolled and bet­ter co­or­di­nated, which means that more air is avail­able for ex­per­i­ment­ing with sounds. All th­ese phys­i­cal changes set the scene for speech to emerge.”

Speech re­quires very small, pre­cise move­ments of the mus­cles of the tongue, lips, cheeks, the soft palate and the lar­ynx. “Be­cause th­ese mus­cles are used for feed­ing (suck­ing, chew­ing and swal­low­ing), chil­dren who have feed­ing prob­lems are likely to be de­layed in their speech de­vel­op­ment,” adds He­lena.

Emo­tional learn­ing Be­cause lan­guage is learnt in a so­cial con­text, your child needs to have some­one to com­mu­ni­cate with in an en­vi­ron­ment where she feels emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally safe.

“It is es­sen­tial for ba­bies to form a safe at­tach­ment with their par­ents or care­giver – this is the first and most im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship of their lives and the one in which they learn how com­mu­ni­ca­tion works,” says He­lena.


Talk to your baby as of­ten and much as you can. By treat­ing your baby as a com­mu­ni­ca­tion part­ner from the get-go, you are mo­ti­vat­ing her to com­mu­ni­cate with you. “Even if she might not be able to un­der­stand every­thing yet, you are cre­at­ing a rich lan­guage en­vi­ron­ment,” says He­lena.

“By re­spond­ing to or re­peat­ing what your child says you are show­ing your child that you are in­ter­ested in what she has to say.”

Take on the role of your child’s in­ter­preter by de­scrib­ing what you’re do­ing while you are do­ing it. “At­tach new words and lan­guage to ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties, like nam­ing the dif­fer­ent parts of the body dur­ing bath time,” adds He­lena.

“Read to your child of­ten, so that he hears the lan­guage of sto­ries from an early age.” By read­ing to your child and ex­pos­ing her to books, you are not only help­ing with lan­guage de­vel­op­ment but also lay­ing the foun­da­tion for learn­ing how to read and write later on.


Typ­i­cally, a two-year-old child has be­tween 200 and 300 words in her ex­pres­sive vo­cab­u­lary, though she may un­der­stand more words than she ac­tu­ally uses.

Ar­tic­u­la­tion refers to the phys­i­cal pro­nun­ci­a­tion of a speech sound. A child should ac­quire all the speech sounds of a lan­guage by five or six years of age. Some sounds are more dif­fi­cult to pro­nounce and can de­velop later. Sounds such as “s”, “sh”, and “the” are also only learnt later.

“It is nor­mal for a child still in the process of learn­ing lan­guage to con­sis­tently change the sound rules of that lan­guage by sim­pli­fy­ing their speech. Th­ese are known as phono­log­i­cal pro­cesses.”

Chil­dren may pro­nounce only half a word, usu­ally the syl­la­ble that car­ries the most stress. (Banana is of­ten pro­nounced as “nana” for in­stance). By the time a child is in Grade One, she should no longer be us­ing phono­log­i­cal pro­cesses, and should be able to say all the speech sounds of her lan­guage.


Ac­cord­ing to He­lena, per­son­al­ity also has an in­flu­ence on the rate at which chil­dren de­velop lan­guage. Chil­dren who are so­cia­ble and ex­traverted are more likely to use lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate ear­lier than chil­dren who are in­tro­verted or shy, al­though their un­der­stand­ing of lan­guage and vo­cab­u­lary might be at the same level.

Re­search has also shown that there is a gen­der dif­fer­ence when it comes to speech and lan­guage de­vel­op­ment. “Girls are gen­er­ally more ad­vanced with re­gard to their speech and lan­guage de­vel­op­ment than boys, and boys typ­i­cally have a higher risk for de­vel­op­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion prob­lems than girls,” He­lena says.


A speech de­lay is when a child reaches the speech and lan­guage mile­stones much later than ex­pected for her age. If your child isn’t speak­ing at all by 18 months, or at two years only us­ing sin­gle words or com­mu­ni­cat­ing mainly in ges­tures, this would be a rea­son for some con­cern.

If your child is not re­spond­ing con­sis­tently to sounds, never re­sponds to her name, or seems to be un­aware of loud noises, you should take her to an au­di­ol­o­gist to test her hear­ing. “Though most chil­dren go through a pe­riod where their speech is not com­pletely flu­ent – they may re­peat words two or three times when they talk – this is not some­thing to be con­cerned about,” He­lena says. How­ever, if you no­tice that this oc­curs more fre­quently if the child is re­peat­ing parts of a word, or strug­gles to get words out, you should con­sult a speech ther­a­pist. YB

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