Your Baby's First Words

Find tips on how to help your baby use and understand her first words.

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Language development

Your Baby's First Words


Try to get in the habit of providing your baby with a narrative of her life. Whenever she's alert, tell her what you are doing. "Okay, I'm going to change your diaper now. First we have to take off your pants…." Also describe to her what she is doing. "Look at you! Standing up and holding your rattle. Can you shake it and make some music? Good!" Your talking will hold your baby's interest, help her polish her social skills, further her understanding of words, and lay the groundwork for learning to speak.

More: When Do Babies Recognize Their Name?


If you have any concerns about your toddler's speech development, be sure to discuss them with your pediatrician.

By your baby's first birthday, he may speak a handful of intelligible words: not necessarily the words used by adults, but words that you recognize as having a specific meaning. But most "talk" at twelve months is still babbling. Your child is practicing different sounds, rhythms, and intonations of speech. During the second year, however, especially the second half of the second year, language development really picks up.

Your baby learns language by listening to you—and others—use it. And though your baby certainly doesn't understand everything you say, he no doubt picks up glimmers of meaning here and there. If you speak to your baby a lot, he will understand many words before he utters anything recognizable. Indeed, by the time your baby speaks a single word or two, he will probably understand dozens of others.

This gap between your child's understanding and his ability to verbalize will continue throughout the preschool years. Your child will understand much more than he can put into words himself. This comparatively deeper understanding paves the way for verbalization. In terms of communication, it matters little that your baby can echo the sound of a word unless he understands—and you understand—what he's saying. Although experiments with making sounds are an essential part of language development, parroting is not really language; any tape recorder can do it.

Although many children do speak their first words around the tenth or eleventh month, don't worry if your baby hasn't spoken during the first year. Some babies don't speak first words until their fourteenth or fifteenth months.

What Is Your Baby Talking About?


You may have noticed that when your child babbled during her first year, she did so only when she was happy. When she was sad or angry, she cried. The same will be true of your baby's first words—at least for a while. Words will initially refer only to things your child loves, and she will use them only when she's happy. So it won't be a whining, "Mamaaaa!" (Translation: "Mama, come here right now, I need you badly.") Rather, it will be a sing-song, "Maaamaaa!" (Translation: "Mama, I'm so glad you're here.")

With your baby's first word, she will "name" an object. Babies (just in case you didn't notice this during the first year) are totally self-centered. So when your child first speaks, she will begin by naming the objects that are most important to her: the people and things that excite her, please her, or make her happy. Like a latter-day Adam, your child will set out to name the objects in her world.

The first few dozen words will refer to you and other favorite people, favorite toys or other objects, and favorite foods. Because they refer to objects that are visible and tangible, your baby's first words will consist almost entirely of common nouns and proper nouns: "Mama," "Dada," "doggie," "shoe," "diaper," "spoon," "cup," or "apple," for example.

Unfortunately, your baby's first words will be spoken in a foreign language-at least foreign to you. A bottle may be a "pala"; a rattle may be a "gib." What will make it even more difficult is that one-year-old children do not see consistency of meaning as a virtue. The bottle that was "pala" last week may be "gama" today. The rattle may now be a "mim." Within a few weeks, however, these names will become consistent: A mim is a mim is a mim (apologies to Gertrude Stein).

It should not matter that your baby is not calling a spade a spade—or a bottle a bottle. If you can understand what your baby means by her vocal sounds, then that's language! She has communicated an idea to you using the sound of her voice alone.

You might expect a steady stream of words once your baby has spoken her first. But actually, your child will pick up new words slowly for several more months. Until around 20 months, she will learn no more than a few new words a month. This will give your child a vocabulary of perhaps 30 or 40 words. These consist primarily of nouns and such simple phrases as "hi," "bye bye," "night night," and even—bless her gracious soul—"thank you." But her vocabulary also will probably include two milestones of personality development: "no!" and "mine!"

At around 20 months, your toddler's vocabulary will begin to increase dramatically. She may pick up a new word almost every day. Naturally enough, your child's vocabulary will still be centered on the things most important to her: her body parts, her crib, her toys, and other objects in her room.

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