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BABY DOCTOR - How Babies Learn - Speech and Language Development

Dr. Goldstein is Board Certified in Pediatrics and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Goldstein earned both his Masters in Public Health and Doctor of Medicine degrees from the Yale University School of Medicine in 1977 and 1981, respectively. He practices general Pediatrics with Pediatric Medical Associates in suburban Philadelphia.

We all remember our baby’s first smile and her first word! Healthy newborns turn toward sound, and by 1-3 months, respond more specifically to sounds by turning their heads, changing facial expressions, and beginning to coo and gurgle. These early vocalizations are the very beginning of language development.

Between 3 and 6 months, babies take delight in making sounds and experiment with new sounds. You may hear your baby babble, laugh, squeal, and make “raspberries”! Babies who are between 6 and 9 months old will babble and laugh frequently. At this age, babies will vocalize to attract attention, and to “engage” caregivers and others to interact with them. These actions are your baby’s way of saying “feed me, touch me, love me!” Pretty smart for one who can’t yet utter a full sentence!

By 9-12 months, babies understand much of what you say, are typically imitating sounds, and begin to imitate the tone of your voice. Not unusually, you may hear her first word during this time, usually “da-da.” Mom, don’t get upset that she isn’t saying “ma-ma” since you may be spending considerably more time with her – it’s just that “da-da” is an easier sound for babies to make, and doesn’t reflect preference! By a year of age, many babies are pointing when asked simple questions, and waving “bye-bye,” (and for me it’s especially nice when I get a smile and a wave) at the end of their check-up!

Over the next few months, your baby will master 2-3 words other than ma-ma or da-da, and by 15 months will indicate her wants by ways other than crying, either verbally, or pulling you over to the fridge and pointing to the milk or juice!  You may hear your little one imitate animal sounds around this time, and may point to several body parts when asked to.  By 18 months, babies’ vocabularies increase to 10-20 words, and many babies begin to string 2 or more words together into short phrases, and by the end of the second year, your baby may master up to 50 or more words and begin speaking in short sentences.

One problem I encounter is the baby who doesn’t seem to be keeping up, an especially common concern of parents who have their infant or toddler in daycare (“all the other babies are talking – what’s wrong with mine?”) or who have other children at home who acquired speech at an earlier age. I remind parents that language acquisition isn’t a contest, and that there are normal age ranges during which babies attain these skills. Speech development may also be slightly delayed among multiples who may develop their own language, which is kept “secret” from parents, or in babies exposed to more than one language by their caregivers. We frequently care for babies who are concurrently learning English, Spanish, or any of the Asian languages. Babies can learn to master several languages with great facility, much more easily than adults can.

With an increasing focus on autism these days, parents often voice concern that their babies may have a true speech or language delay. As pediatricians, we screen for this as young as 6 months of age, and when babies truly fall outside the range of normal, a referral for a speech evaluation or to a developmental pediatrician may be in order.  But this is the exception, not the rule. Typically, parents raise the issue at the 15 or 18 month visit, but by the 2 year visit, the majority report they simply can’t keep their toddler from chattering endlessly!  If she doesn’t babble or imitate sounds by her seventh month, a hearing or speech development problem may exist.

If, despite reassurance from friends and family that your baby’s speech is normal, you as a parent remain concerned then most likely this is the appropriate time to seek help.  Always pay close attention to your gut instinct.

Remember these key points in language development:

  • Avoid making comparisons between your baby’s speech and that of others who are of similar age;
  • There are normal age ranges for infants/toddlers and children to acquire speech and language skills;
  • Whether you are a couple or single parent raising your baby, the way you interact with her has significant impact on language development during the critical first years.

Remember, your child is growing and learning every day and as a parent, you are the one who knows her best.  If you have concerns, speak up and discuss them with your baby’s doctor.  We want to know if something is bothering you.  Our job is to pay attention to your concerns and help you care for your children as we all learn and grow together.

When it comes to acquisition of speech and language development, never hesitate to be your child’s strongest advocate.  If you aren’t, no one else will be!

Please feel free to express yourself below.

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User Comments:
Mary L said:
The development of language is one of the most amazing skills a baby can accomplish. Thanks for making this more understandable.
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