The Path To First Words
The first year of your baby's life is a flurry of excitement and many firsts, often culminating with their first word. In this first year of life, your baby will reach many milestones that are the building blocks for future communication skills. These skills serve as a general guideline of what you can look and listen for before your child's first words.
First your baby will coo and smile at you. Then comes babbling or pre-verbal language. This takes many forms and evolves as your baby grows, beginning around 6 months of age. Babbling is different from cooing since it contains consonant sounds.
There are three types of babbling:
First babbling will sound like "babababa" or "mimimi." This is called reduplicated babbling and occurs at 6-8 months old.
Next babbling will sound like "buh-duh-gah." This is called variegated babbling and occurs at 8-10 months old.
Then babbling will start to sound like your baby is “talking” to you, though you may not be able to pick out any real words. It sounds and will look like your baby is having a conversation with you (gestures and facial expressions included). This is called conversational babbling, or sometimes called jargon, and occurs at 10-12 months old.
This last type of babbling will start to include more and more sound combinations that become real words.
So what exactly is a real word?
For a “word” to be a real word, according to language development, it must fit the following two criteria:
The sounds must be similar to the real, adult version of the word. It is important to remember that children are not born with the ability to say all of the speech sounds of their language. This is a process that happens over many years. So, words can have errors yet still sound like the real, adult word. For example, a toddler may say “tat” or “cah” for cat and those all could be considered a word.
To be a real word, the sound combination must also be used consistently in the presence of the object with purpose and meaning. For example, a six-month-old saying "dadadada" while he is playing with his toys while daddy is at work is likely not using a true word. A 10-month-old who says “dadada” when daddy walks in the door and says it while looking at daddy (showing meaning and purpose) and does it consistently (meaning many different times) is most likely a real word.
First words are often the items your baby sees and interacts with regularly, such as toys, food, items in the home, or people like you as their mama or dada. Then, between 12 and 15 months your baby will typically be communicating consistently, even if it is not with words. They point, gesture, make eye contact, smile, laugh, protest and even walk. If at 16-17 months your baby’s babbling has not grown into words, then I encourage you to speak with your pediatrician and consult a pediatric speech-language pathologist in your area.
I also encourage you to listen, observe, and be patient as your baby develops in his/her own time. Let this serve as a guide while you watch your baby blossom during their first year.
Celebrate all the firsts and be ready for more in the coming days, months, and years!
Emily Cohen, MA, CCC-SLP
Emily is the founder of the Tandem Speech Therapy, a pediatric speech therapy practice serving Austin, TX. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Special Education from Indiana University-Bloomington. She then went on to earn her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Eastern Michigan University. Emily spent three years working in special education classrooms and the last 8+ years working in a variety of pediatric therapy settings with children birth to 18 years. Emily provides play-based and family centered pediatric speech therapy for toddlers and preschoolers, as well as services for school-aged children.