It's the milestone many parents anticipate most: hearing their baby's first words! Babies utter those first words around age 1, but they're learning language from birth. Babies start talking after months of soaking up everything they hear and see – and you have an important role to play. Encourage your little one's language skills by talking, reading, listening, and responding to your baby.
When do babies start talking?
Your baby will probably be able to talk – using a few simple words to express meaning – around their first birthday.
But learning to talk is a complex process that starts at birth and continues for years. Long before your baby says their first word, they're learning the rules of language and how adults use it to communicate.
Your baby will begin by using their tongue, lips, palate, and any emerging teeth to make sounds (cries at first, then coos in the first month or two, and babbling around 4 months). As your baby babbles more expertly, around 6 months old, you may hear word-like sounds like "ma-ma," "ba-ba," and "da-da." This doesn't count as real talking, though, because your baby doesn't yet understand the meaning of these words.
By around 12 months old, your baby will say a few words and know what they mean. They'll keep gaining words, and sometime around age 2, they'll begin to form two-word sentences. As your baby makes mental, emotional, and behavioral leaps, they're increasingly able to use words to describe what they see, hear, feel, think, and want.
When do babies say their first word?
Around their first birthday, babies will say one or two simple words like "hi," "dog," "dada," "mama," "cup," "ball," "bye bye," or "uh-oh." The sounds may not be completely clear, but they'll be understandable. At the same time, your baby will also:
- Try to say words you say
- Respond to simple spoken requests like "come here"
- Imitate different speech sounds
- Use gestures like shaking their head no or waving bye
- Understand words for common items and people
How babies learn to talk
Here's how you can expect your baby's talking to progress. Note: If they're being raised in a bilingual environment, language milestones usually occur at about the same time in both languages.
Many researchers believe the work of understanding language begins while a baby is still in utero. Just as your unborn baby gets used to the steady beat of your heart, they tune into the sound of your voice and can discern yours among others.
Birth to 3 months
Crying is your baby's first form of communication. And one cry doesn't fit all: A piercing scream may mean they're hungry, while a whimpering, staccato cry may signal that they need a diaper change.
When your baby's happy, they'll make adorable cooing sounds. You may hear a delightful repertoire of gurgles, sighs, and coos.
As for their ability to understand language, your baby is starting to recognize what words sound like and how sentences are structured as they listen to those around them.
4 to 6 months
Your baby will start to babble, combining consonants and vowels (such as "ba-ba" or "ya-ya"). At about 6 months old, they can respond to their name.
You may hear the first "ma-ma" or "da-da" now and then too. Though it's sure to melt your heart, your baby doesn't equate those words with you quite yet. That comes later, when they're around a year old.
Your baby's attempts at talking will sound like stream-of-consciousness monologues in another language with endless words strung together. Vocalization is a game to your baby, who's experimenting with using their tongue, teeth, palate, and vocal cords to make all sorts of funny noises.
At this stage, babbling sounds the same, whether you speak English, French, or Japanese in your home. You may notice your child favoring certain sounds (like "ka" or "da"), repeating them over and over because they like the way they sound and how their mouth feels when they say them.
7 to 12 months
When your baby babbles and vocalizes now, they may sound as if they're making sense. That's because they're trying out tones and patterns similar to the ones you use.
Your baby is starting to attach meaning to the words they hear every day. They begin to link words to actions when they hear you say things like "let's start your bath," or "time to get in your car seat."
13 to 18 months
Now your child will probably use severalwords, and know what they mean. Your baby will even practice inflection, raising their tone when asking a question by saying "Up-py?" when they want to be carried, for example. They're realizing the importance of language as they tap into the power of communicating their needs.
How to help your baby start talking
You can help your child's language skills grow by providing a rich and nurturing communication environment. Here are the most important things to do:
- Talk. You don't need to chatter nonstop, but speak to your baby whenever you're together. Describe what you're doing, point things out, and ask questions and answer them. ("What do you think she's doing? Oh, she's picking up the cat.")
- Read. Reading to your baby is a great way to expose them to new vocabulary, the way sentences are put together, and how stories flow. Baby books with rhyming and repetition are especially beneficial.
- Listen. When your child talks to you, be a good listener – look at them and respond, even if you don't understand what they're saying. ("Are you asking for breakfast? I think it's time to eat!")
- Have fun. Teach your baby animal sounds, sing songs, imitate your baby's expressions, and laugh when they laugh. Use sounds when you play, making a toy car say "rrrr" or making popping sounds for bubbles in the tub.
What to do if your baby doesn't talk
You're the best person to gauge your child's speech development. If they show any of the signs listed below, talk to your child's doctor about the possibility of a development delay or hearing problem.
Your pediatrician may refer your child to a pediatric speech-language pathologist for an evaluation. (The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a searchable directory of certified therapists.)
Alternatively, your doctor's office, daycare provider, or local school might be able to direct you to an early intervention program in your area – usually coordinated through the county or public school system – that provides free screening for language problems.
Some signs to look out for:
- By 2 months old, doesn't respond to loud sounds
- By 4 months old, doesn't coo or make sounds
- By 6 months old, doesn't make vowel sounds like "ah," "eh," "oh"
- By 6 months old, doesn't laugh or make squealing sounds
- By 9 months old, doesn't babble ("mama," "baba," "dada")
- By 9 months old, doesn't respond to own name
- By 12 months old, doesn't say single words like "mama" or "dada"
- By 18 months old, doesn't say at least fivewords
- By 18 months old, doesn't gain new words
After your baby starts talking, what's next?
Once your child starts talking, you'll probably hear an explosion of language between ages 1 and 2. Your little one will likely use a lot of new words, start putting two words together to express themselves (like "no bed" or "more milk"), ask short questions ("who that?"), and start to name pictures in books.
To learn more about what's to come, check out our articles on your child's talking timeline and how toddlers talk and understand words.