Baby Talk: What Age Babies Start Babbling And Ways Parents Can Encourage Talking

Mother and baby playing in living room
Mother and baby playing in living room

If that video doing the rounds of a seven-week-old baby allegedly saying 'I love you' to her dad has sent you into frenzied concern that your little one is way behind with talking, fear not.

Here we look at what's normal with speech development, when you should and shouldn't worry and how you can help your baby or toddler to get nattering.

First words?

Babies typically make their first steps towards talking at around three months. But definitely don't expect proper words – or indeed any 'I love you' comments - just yet. For now they will really just be experimenting with sounds by babbling.

According to Dr. Amanda Gummer, child psychologist and founder of Fundamentally Children, "Babbling can happen quite early on and is repeating sounds such as mamamama or daddddaaaa – this can sound like mum or dad and get us all excited but it's quite different to meaningful talking where a baby knows and understands what they are saying."

By approximately one year – some earlier, some later - many babies do start to use some 'proper' words with understanding and in context. They might point at dad and say 'dada' or use a made-up word consistently for milk or food.

Our babies' first words are a key milestone most of us remember and many parents lightheartedly wonder if the chosen word indicates anything about their child's preferences.

Mum-of-one Victoria reckons her son's first word was 'bear' but his dad is convinced it was actually 'beer'. Meanwhile, Katie, a mother of three, reckons her youngest's first word was 'no': "I should have seen that as an omen - she is a very strong-willed little girl!"

Adding vocab and stringing a sentence together

The speed with which your toddler acquires more words varies enormously but as a guide, a typical 18 month-old might say between six and 20 individual words, although they can probably understand a lot more. Between now and two years of age, many will begin putting two words together to start working towards making sentences.

When to worry and when not to

Amanda advises parents to try to avoid obsessing about a toddler who is yet to talk when all about you their peers are muttering 'mama' and 'milk'. "When you're there with your antenatal group and yours is the slowest at talking, it's understandable that you worry but try not to get too fixated. Do some research and look at how to stimulate their speech [see below for ideas] but otherwise park your concerns and come back to them in three or six months and see if things have improved with some gentle encouragement. It is not worth letting it take over your daily life."

Traditionally the age of 18 months to two is when health professionals will be better able to assess whether there should be any concerns about a lack of speech. "A useful benchmark is if a child hasn't managed 10 words by the age of two, it's probably time to get some advice," says Amanda.

For most children who are a little slow to get chatting, it probably won't make any difference to their speech in the long term. Mum-of-two Natalie has reassuring words: "My son Eddie was late talking - he didn't really speak until 18 months and his only phrase for ages was 'la la dee' (I never found out what that meant). But now I can't get him to stop talking, I think he talks more than me."

Liz is another mum with a late talker. "He was quieter than most of his friends until almost three and then there was no stopping him. It was as if something clicked. If anything, at nine, he is now much chattier than most boys his age and has a great vocabulary."

What can you do, if anything to help things along?

"Talk about what's happening and explain things to your baby or toddler. Speak to them as if they are going to respond with natural gaps in between. So for example 'I'm going to change your nappy now. Shall we lie you down?'" suggests Amanda.

She adds that infants learn a lot from non-verbal communication and eye contact, so make sure you are looking at your child when talking to them as much as possible.

For children who are struggling with talking, she recommends getting them blowing bubbles, whistles and also using straws for drinks to help exercise the right muscles.

You could also try emphasising key words and keeping your speech fairly simple and consistent initially. Reading age appropriate picture books is also helpful.

For toddlers who are starting to string their first sentences together, you could say the same thing back to them but adding an additional word. So for example if they say "look car!", you could reply with "yes a big car".

Keep it fairly natural though or you'll drive yourself mad – and possibly them!

And a last word on all this...

Of course a few children do have a real difficulty talking and need help or have an on-going issue but for most, they will catch up and you really won't be able to tell who spoke early and who did not.