Your baby’s first word is a big milestone – along with those first shaky steps, it’s a sign that she’s becoming independent and entering the next phase of her life. And of course, no matter what her first word is – ‘mumma’, ‘dadda’, a pet or siblings name, or asking for ‘more’ at dinner time – it’s a very exciting time for celebration!
Before the first word
Babies start to make speech-like sounds when they’re just a few months old. While the majority of communication will be through crying (there’s not much else they can really do to tell you how they’re feeling, after all), your baby will start making cooing sounds at around three months – noises with a lot of ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds, as these are easiest. Next come ‘t’, ‘d’, ‘c’ and ‘g’ sounds, but they can be hard to distinguish - at this stage they might just sound like random noises.
As your child listens to the world around her - especially the voices of her parents - and experiments with her voice more, she’ll start to put sounds together in a way that makes it seem like she’s talking, using all the right intonations and stresses. Of course, all this time she’s learning words – it’s believed that most babies say their first word when they understand 20-40 individual words. Some babies, however, wait longer; some can understand up to 200 words before they utter a word.
Making the leap
The first proper word often arrives between nine and 11 months, but this can vary greatly – some babies start at six months, while others don’t start until 16 months or so.
And what will that very first word be? It tends to be something they hear a lot, and that's easy to say. A survey of Essential Baby members found that 46 per cent of babies first said ‘mumma’ or a similar variation, while 15 per cent said ‘dadda’. Others said a pet’s name (12 per cent), or the name of a favourite food of drink (5 per cent). But other first words included ‘more’, ‘dog’, ‘shoe’ and even ‘boob’!
A survey of Essential Baby members found that 46 per cent of babies first said ‘mumma’ or a similar variation, whilt 15 per cent said 'dadda'
While your child might use the word to correctly identify a person or item, they might use it for a range of items – that is, ‘cat’ could be applied to every animal they see, or either parent can be called ‘dadda/mumma’. This is normal and will sort itself out as their language skills continue to develop.
Those first words can still be hard to understand, too, with members of the baby’s immediate family often the only ones to know what they mean. But if your baby repeatedly uses the same sound to mean the same thing, and you can understand it, this is the start of speech.
The next stage
After your baby says his first word, it can take a few weeks to hear any more from him. At the start, words tend to emerge at a rate of one to three a month, but he’s still learning all the time. The amount of words your child knows increases tenfold between the ages of 18 months and two years; by time he’s two, on average, he’ll know between 50 to 200 words. By then, many two-year-olds will be linking words in two or even three-word phrases, such as 'more milk' or 'mummy go work'.
For some time, your child will be mispronouncing words here and there, or using new and inventive words to describe things. Again, it’s nothing to worry about – and it can be pretty adorable, and funny too! Children don't fully develop their language and sound skills until they’re around seven; before then, they might make mistakes such as pronouncing a hard ‘c’ as ‘t’ – that is, saying ‘tat’ instead of cat.
If your baby is slow to start, try not to worry or compare him with others. There’s no connection between late talking and low intelligence – or, for that matter, early speech and high intelligence. Normal language development skills really do cover a very broad range. However, having said that, if you’re ever concerned about any aspect of your child’s development, speak to your doctor - they'll be able to reassure you, or send your child for further tests.