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Your Baby’s First Word…

… is a process.  

Your baby’s first word, like your baby’s first step, is a journey, instead of the finish line we sometimes think it is.

I’m not trying to spoil anybody’s fun.  Your child’s first independent step is such a thrill that it’s dizzying.  Not for baby — for parents, I mean.  And the first recognizable word? Nothing less than an event — hey, I know the date, time, and GPS coordinates for my first kid’s first word, okay?

I’m just saying…. while you await the first word, or the first step, why not enjoy the developmental signs that are posted along the route?

As regular readers of this blog know, the newborn first translates her communiques into the language of the cry.  Within weeks after her birth, baby will have organized her cries into different sounding requests.  At about 3 months old, your baby will discover the joy of laughing.  By 6 months of age, she’s beginning to babble for entertainment, but for a purpose, too.  Your child is practicing the way her utterances sound and feel in her mouth as she attempts them.

A big milestone in receptive language (what baby can comprehend or comply with) occurs around 6 months of age:  your infant will turn her head to the sound of her name, looking around to seek out the source.  Beautiful.

A milestone in expressive language (what baby can you know, express) occurs not long after:  at around 7 months old, baby starts making consonant-based sounds.  One-syllable sounds at first:  gah, bah, kah, dah, and mahI know, I know! That “mah” thing is particularly exciting, but um…. it’s just a sound for now.  At around one-year old, your child will say “Mama” and “Dada” like she means it.  Because she will.

Within a month or two of producing the consonant-based sounds, your young talker will link the monosyllables together.  Then she’ll develop the ability to imitate on purpose the sounds you make.

A few more notes for the journey:

  • Receptive language ability (figuring out what comes out of your mouth) is a much better indicator of language development than expressive ability (what baby can make her own mouth say), during the first three years.
  • When your (approximately) 9-month old infant can follow your instruction to wave “bye-bye” while saying something that sounds like “bye-bye”, you will know that she has combined several developmental markers into one communication action.
  • Multilingual households might see a shift in the timeline of language development.  But amazingly, developing twice (or thrice) as many languages doesn’t take twice or thrice as much time.  Just a little longer.  Sometimes.

Scientists have discovered that babies between the age of 6 and 12 months are also ruthless editors — they simply don’t bother with sounds that don’t occur in what will be their native languages. Although babies’ brains are born ready to hear, understand, and produce all sounds of all languages known to humankind, the brain makes choices based on exposure, experiences, and usage.


Read more Language Development posts

  • This is a very informative post. I wish I had read this when my son was forming his first words.
    Now my son is using his words in perfect format and I am so proud.

    Comment by Kathy Sykes — March 12, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  • Hi Kathy. Thank you for your comments. Congratulations on your son’s on-target language skills! He can only repeat what he’s heard, so you must be doing a terrific job.

    Comment by Carly Jennings — March 12, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

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