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Ready Set Talk: Speech and Language Milestones

For many parents, few moments are as eagerly anticipated and memorable as seeing their babies return that long awaited smile or hearing  them utter their first word.

The development of speech and language skills is a truly remarkable feat. Babies are learning how to communicate from the moment they are born. Long before they have uttered their first words, babies are on their way towards laying the groundwork for speech and language development. For example, they engage in interactive behaviors and vocal experimentation such as smiling in anticipation of your ‘peek-a-boo’, or babbling in a string of repetitive sounds, eventually leading up to their first true word, which typically emerges around 12 months of age.

Naturally, many questions may run through parents minds as they watch their children develop and grow – “is my child displaying the right behaviors for his age?”; “is my child lagging behind?”; “when should my child be putting words together?”;“why does my child mispronounce all her ‘r’s?”; “why does my son keep repeating his words?”

This questioning may become even more pronounced when parents are in the company of friends or family, with children of their own. They may hear anecdotes about other children’s verbal accomplishments and upon hearing such stories may begin to feel concerned and overwhelmed by what to do with their own child, and wonder whose help to seek.

While it may be easy to compare one’s own child to other children and begin wondering about the whats, whens and whys,  when it comes to child communication, research in language acquisition can help take away some of this unnecessary guesswork.  This is because speech and language development typically follows a predictable progression. In general, most children will be displaying similar communication behaviors at a given age interval, with some variation based on factors such as the presence of a second language, cultural expectations about child-parent interactions, and the child’s environment, to name a few.

Speech and Language Milestones

Here is a quick snap shot at what babies are typically doing between birth and 3 years of age.

Birth to 3 months

At this stage, babies are highly aware of the sounds that surround them.  They startle at sudden, loud noises and may pause their activity momentarily in response to novel sounds. Most endearingly, they may show a response to your voice by smiling or by ceasing to cry upon hearing it.

The earliest sounds babies produce are reflexive vocalizations such as coughs and burps. They may smile and coo at you, making simple consonant and vowel combinations that are produced in the back of the mouth .

4 to 6 months

Babies continue to refine their listening skills, at this stage. Now, they are beginning to move their eyes in the direction of sounds. They react to changes in vocal tone, and will watch a speaker’s face. They also respond to various other sounds such as music and noisy toys. They begin to show some understanding of the word “no”.

Babies are gaining better control of their vocal mechanisms and begin to engage in vocal play, producing squeals, growls, yells, lip smacking and gurgling sounds. At this stage, babies begin minimal babbling in repetitive consonant-vowel sequences such as mamama or ‘bababa’.

7 to 12 months

Around this time, babies respond to sounds from a source outside their field of vision, for example a doorbell or radio in another room. They show understanding of a few words of familiar items, simple questions and basic requests.

The babbling continues with an increase in the variety of sounds in addition to variations in tone, so that their babbling is more adult sounding. Also, babies begin to interact with you through sequenced actions such as ‘peek-a-boo’.

1 to 2 years

Your child begins to identify some body parts by pointing towards them. They understand simple ‘where’ questions and respond by pointing to the picture of the named item. They may point at pictures or objects that you name, and understand simple “what’s this?” and “who” questions. The can follow simple directions and enjoy repetition of simple stories, songs, and rhymes.

Typically, children utter their first word around 12 months of age. This may have occurred earlier for some, while others may keep their parents in suspense for a little longer. By 1.5 years they are putting together 2 words, mostly names for things. At this stage they start using rising intonation to ask questions.

2 to 3 years

At this stage, your child is experiencing a major boost in their language development. The number of words they use increases dramatically. Their utterances are anywhere from one to three words long. They begin to understand 2-step directions and ask and answer simple questions such as “where?”, “what?”, “what are you doing?”.  

It is important to remember that there will be some variation between children. Moreover, just because a child is not displaying one or two characteristics typical of their age group, it does not mean that there definitely is a cause for concern, unless if perhaps they are not demonstrating the majority of skills in a given age range.  Children typically do not master all items in a category until they reach the upper age in each age range.

While most children eventually develop their speech and language skills, some will experience difficulty that is not attributed to the maturation process.

The difficulty may either be due to a known cause, for example, a developmental disability, or there may be no identifiable cause. While in some cases it may be obvious that a child is struggling to communicate, in other cases parents may not be exactly sure whether their child’s performance is age appropriate or whether further investigation is warranted, and to whom to reach out in order to address their concerns. This is where parents can seek the help of Speech and Language Pathologists.

Soon enough, you may hear your children talk so much that you may secretly long for the days when they couldn’t so eloquently negotiate their meal choices or contest their bedtime. If you feel concerned about your child’s development, then it may be worth speaking to a professional to ease your mind and allay your concerns.

This new series on your child’s speech and language aims to arm you with information regarding aspects of your child’s speech and language development. Stay tuned for our upcoming articles on the subject.



 Phot0graph credit: Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

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Contributed by Wid Al Bayaty

Wid Al Bayaty (M.S., CCC-SLP) is a Speech and Language Pathologist based in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She holds a Masters degree from Columbia University and is certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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