12 - 48 Months

Baby’s First Words: What to Look Out For

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“The key for talking with pre-talkers is for you to take your turn, and then you wait and look expectantly at your child.”

Gopika Kamdar, Speech Language Pathologist

Baby’s first words — few milestones are met with more emotion from the adults in the room! But what constitutes a first word and when should parents be expecting to hear them? Join Host Jessica Rolph and Speech Language Pathologist Gopika Kamdar for a look at some common indicators of language development.

On the table for discussion is research from the ’90s suggesting the volume of words spoken to infants is paramount to speech and language development, as compared with more recent research that emphasizes the importance of serve-and-return, the turn-taking that comes naturally to adults. So which is it? As with most topics we cover, we think you’ll find the answers reassuring. 

Key Takeaways:

[1:26] Gopika talks about the benefits of narration and serve-and-return as approaches to promote language development.

[4:07] Gopika explains the difference between receptive language and expressive language.

[5:11] When do most children say their first words?

[6:52] When should we worry? When do you start to see a need for intervention?

[9:06] What are some language milestones for a 24-month-old?

[11:28] What are markers of a speech delay if a child isn’t meeting the average ranges?

[13:51] Myth or truth: Does pacifier use cause speech delays? 

[16:07] Jessica shares her top three takeaways.


Most of us know how important it is to read to our babies and young children. But few parents are reading “Cat Hat In The Hat” 18 times a day. Ludicrous as that sounds, it was actually referenced as an equivalent to the 30,000 words per day recommended in a landmark study on language by Hart & Risley in the ’90s.

The study said that the more language children are exposed to, the better prepared they are for school. This lead many of us to believe that the number of words spoken was paramount. A wearable device surfaced that even counted the number of words a parent uses in any given day with their child, but more recent research emphasizes the importance of serve-and-return, that turn-taking that comes naturally to adults.

Here to help us understand the nuances of language development, is Speech Language Pathologist Gopika Kamdar.

So which is it, Gopika, narration, serve-and-return, or both?

The Importance of Serve and Return

Gopika: So, I think it’s both, in the sense of exposure to language. It is important to narrate to your baby. You do want to expose them to as much language as possible, and you want to talk to them about what you are doing. But also, you want to engage in a real back-and-forth conversation. So sure, with a young child under the age of one, you will be doing the majority… Well, all of the talking. But these back-and-forth conversations, teach children early on that there is expected turn-taking and conversational interactions.

I communicate and then you communicate, and then I communicate. And it’s nice and juicy. And it’s so exciting. And here’s the key for doing it with pre-talkers, you take your turn, and then you have to wait. And this is key. You have to wait and look expectantly at your child. And then you… So you’re directing your expectation at them in a way that’s somewhat tangible, you’re using your facial expression, you’re using your body language like “I’m really looking forward to what you’re going to say. And you do this every time so that the child, the baby develops this understanding that there’s a pattern, and then they respond, and the response is… Again, it can be a smile, a raspberry, a movement, a facial expression, a coo, a babble. So, people… Parents who are new to this often won’t wait long enough, but really if you wait, and sometimes we recommend waiting for 10 seconds which feels like an eternity.

Jessica: That is so long!

Gopika: It’s so long.

Jessica: I didn’t do that.

Gopika: If I was silent for 10 seconds, right now, I think people would be like, “Is there a glitch in the system? Is anyone on air?” But you’ll be surprised by how the child will fill that void, with some sort of communication. And, all the while looking at you to continue this conversation.

Expressive and Receptive Language

Jessica: That is such a great wisdom, and I will say it’s such a great reminder for some of us who are really enthusiastic and just, have trouble giving space to, I’ll say, my children, just to speak. So I want to get into some more research that says that babies as young as 10 months of age can understand 40 words, just like absorbing that, 10 months of age can understand 40 words. Can you explain the difference between receptive language, and expressive language? 

Gopika: So expressive language is the use, receptive language is the understanding. And it’s important to understand that a baby, or any child has to understand language before they can even use it. So receptive language is the first step, always, and then comes expressive language. So a child needs to understand what the word is, and really have a nice grasp of where and how to use this word before they can actually put it together and use it in context. 

When do Babies Say Their First Words?

Jessica: I think it’s so grounding and comforting for us to hear that they’re picking up so much about language, even if they’re not speaking those first words yet or speaking in full sentences, which gets me to my next topic that I want to cover with you is, giving us some guidance on what are the healthy ranges for babies and toddlers to start talking, expressive language, and when to worry. So, when do most children say those first words? 

Gopika: This is such a common question, and most parents are so conscious of this moment… There’s a lot of emotion around it, parents are so excited when they hear their child imitating or saying their first word, and then some parents feel quite anxious or concerned if they aren’t hearing those words. I would like to first define… What is a first word? And obviously actual first words, saying a full first word counts. But approximations like, ca for car, and onomatopoeia and exclamations, so animal sounds and exclamations like, “Oh oh. Oh no,” are all examples of words. And what’s important is that these words are consistent, so they’re said multiple times, they’re intentional… The babies and the children aren’t just saying the words, as they walk around just to say it but there was an intent behind it. And they’re independent, so the child is saying it without a model or without imitating. And so, again, consistent, intentional, and independent.

So ideally by 12 months we’d like to see one to five words. These first words start appearing in conversation.

Language Milestones and When to Worry

Jessica: So you’ve given us the healthy ranges or what you see as typical. When should we worry? When do you start to see a need for intervention, especially with, there’s that very first stage of expressive language emerging? 

Pre-linguistic Communication and Skills 

Gopika: Well, it’s important to understand that there are broad ranges around developmental language milestones. And so, there’s a distribution, a bell curve, and there are children who are going to be early on that bell curve like, their first words will appear at eight or nine months. And then there are children who are a little later, around 14 or 15 months. And I want parents to know that there are pre-linguistic skills that are flashing signs that their children are working on core components of communication. And generally, if you see these skills by 12 months. Then I am not overly concerned about a language delay… So these skills include, engagement and reciprocity… Does your child want to communicate and have this nice back-and-forth with you? Is your child babbling, so are they practicing all their sounds? Are you hearing a variety of vowels and a variety of consonants? Are there patterns within that… Those babbling sounds? For particular items and people. And then are they using gestures?

So I’m looking for those pre-linguistic skills as a sign that your child is, and maybe on their way to saying their first words. However, I do encourage parents to take a proactive and more focused role and maximize language opportunities between 12 to 15 months if they aren’t seeing first words yet, because I would like to see, and most speech pathologists would like to see, the first words really in there by 15 months.

24-Month-Old Language Explosion 

Jessica: That is so reassuring. I love having this information. I feel like we don’t get direct information all the time when we’re trying to figure it out on our own. And so let’s talk about the next thing, toddlerhood. So what does language, look like for a 24-month-old, for example? 

Gopika: 24-month-olds are so juicy, they really just want to communicate, and they have so much to share.

At 24 months, children are starting to string words together because they have had this huge language burst from 18 to 24 months, so they’re moving out of these one-word utterances and starting to combine descriptive language and verbs, and they can express a wide variety of emotions during their interactions and play, and they start to produce coordinated meanings. For example, my almost 24-month-old is starting to do this, he is noticing that there are other people out there who have purses like his mother, and he went up to our nanny and pulled on her purse and said “Mommy, mommy’s, mommy’s bag.” So you put two words together and it had meaning behind it, it was coordinated, he related to a situation. And so they become more interactive and they’re understanding new words and they can follow two-step directions, and they answer questions about the here and now, and also start to ask simple questions, which is just so fun.

And at this age, they love to relate personal experiences and try to share information with their parents, and they’re engaging in longer play sequences and using words, you’re going to start seeing words during play. They start pushing lawn mowers and labelling things they see as they go on walks. So it’s really… You’re going to see a huge language burst around 24 months. On average, a 24-month-old has approximately 200 to 300 words.

Jessica: Wow. It’s just such an explosion. It’s so amazing.

Gopika: So amazing.

Delayed Speech and What to Look Out For 

Jessica: And then I always think you hear the stories of these very, like Einstein didn’t speak until three. When should we worry? What are the cues that we need to be tuning into to actually be concerned about a speech delay, if a child isn’t meeting these kind of average ranges…

Gopika: Well, first and foremost, parents know their own children the best and they’re their greatest advocates, and I’m a big believer in trusting your gut. I’m also a big believer in early intervention, as research has shown the earlier you intervene and earlier treatment is provided, results in better outcomes or a faster catch-up. So at every age there are different milestones that speech and language pathologists are looking for… In general, we’re looking for a communicative intent, so is your child engaged. We are looking for understanding and use of language. We are looking for difficulties with feeding and swallowing. My top five red flags for children under the age of two, are if your child is not engaged or not as responsive during communication attempts by you as the parent or the siblings or friends, also, if your child is not babbling by five to six months. Babbling is so crucial for sound development and organizing the sound system.

Practicing the sounds that are in later, more complex words. If your child does not have five to 15 words by 15 months, or 15 to 50 words by 18 months, I like to have a child looked at by a speech language pathologist. If your child is a picky eater, having difficulty with feeding and swallowing, we can help. We as speech pathologists can help with feeding and swallowing, but also there may be something going on with the development of the articulators, the mouth, the oral development, so all the parts of the mouth that help with feeding also help with sound development and language. And then if your child is having trouble understanding what you were saying, following simple directions and answering simple questions.

Do Pacifiers Delay Speech? 

Jessica: Is this a myth that pacifier use can cause speech delays? Or is this true? 

Gopika: There is nothing wrong with pacifier use. There are actually many benefits to pacifiers. They help with self-soothing during times of upset or when a child is trying to wind down to sleep, and there’s research indicating that pacifiers protect against SIDs up to six months. In regards to language, there is no indication that pacifiers cause a language delay. Pacifiers can, however, impact dentition by 24 months. It can definitely impact the development of the oral pallet, so your mouth, and that can impact how a child develops their sound system and the articulation… The way they produce their sounds. So while there’s nothing wrong with using a pacifier, I find it really important starting from infancy to maximize a baby’s opportunity to explore his/her environment and communicate, oral exploration, mouthing, babbling, crying, and these all require the ability to make sounds. So if there’s a pacifier in the baby’s mouth, there’s less opportunity to really practice the sounds. So my recommendation is to try to limit the baby’s pacifier use to nap time or sleep time, and instead of offering your child, immediately offering your child, the pacifier during moments of increased emotion, to find ways to help your child communicate that emotion or learn how to self-soothe on their own.

Jessica: Gopika, it has been so wonderful having you with us. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Gopika: Thank you so much for having me. This was so fun.

Three Episode Takeaways for Parents

All this talk of baby talk reminds me of when Leland said the word Light for the first time on the airplane as I flipped the switch over and over again. I was so excited. 

1. Have Conversations With Your Baby

It is possible to have a “conversation” with infants. You do this by pausing after asking your baby a question or making an observation, and waiting for your child to respond with a sound or facial expression. Tuning in and turning to them when they make those little grunts, coos, and babbles reaffirms their attempts at communication. 

2. Receptive Language Comes First

Children must understand words before they can use them in conversation. This is why receptive language comes first — babies as young as 10 months old can understand about 40 words. Just because your baby or toddler is not responding back with their own words, does not mean they aren’t absorbing the language you are modeling for them.

3. Expressive Language and Pre-linguistic Communication

First spoken words — expressive language — shows up on a bell curve anywhere from 8 to 15 months. Here are some pre-linguistic skills that indicate your child is on their way to speaking: They’re engaging in attempts at back-and-forth communication, they’re babbling, and they’re using gestures. Look for consistent, intentional, and independent attempts at communication. These can be sounds or exclamations, so long as they are intentional. 

You can find more information on language development on the Lovevery blog at lovevery.com.


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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, Language, Speech Development, Child Development

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