Is My Baby on Track To Talk?

funny little boy lying on blue blanket with lots of question marks

Babies develop at different rates – some walk sooner than others, some talk later, and many don’t stick to the “official” schedule that parenting experts use as a guideline. Most of the time, the delay means nothing – even if you find yourself worrying once in a while. Sometimes, though, there’s reason to be concerned. Well-meaning friends and family (or even your pediatrician) may try to reassure you that your baby is developing normally – “Don’t worry, my son didn’t utter a word before he was 3 and now he’s a regular chatterbox!” – when your intuition tells you something’s up.

There is a wide range of normal when it comes to meeting milestones, especially for speech and language. But that doesn’t mean you can’t spot a problem early on. Many developmental red flags can alert you to an issue well before your baby even starts to “talk.” For instance, a baby of about 12 months who is not pointing or waving – two important nonverbal ways that babies communicate – could be showing signs of a fine-motor delay or autism spectrum disorder, and babies who don’t readily imitate sounds may have a hearing problem.

We’ve compiled a handy guide to help you keep an eye—and an ear—open for potential problems. If you’re ever concerned about your baby or toddler’s development, call your state’s Early Intervention program to have your child evaluated. The evaluation is free, and you don’t need a doctor’s referral. The earlier a child gets help, the more likely he is to catch up.

Birth Through 3 Months

Newborns are pros at crying to get their needs met, but they soon start to communicate in other ways that help them form social bonds with the people around them.

What’s On Track

Her cries may all sound the same at first, but soon you’ll start to be able to tell which cry means she’s hungry and which one means she’s tired. Beyond crying, her “vocabulary” will expand to include pleasure sounds like cooing, gurgling and the beginnings of babbling. Purposeful smiles – her first real attempts to be social with you – usually emerge by the end of the second month. She’ll also be turning her head toward a sound, like a noisy toy or rattle. She may even recognize your voice and calm down if she hears it.

What To Watch For

  • Not responding to loud noises
  • No purposeful smiles by 3 months

Happy lvoing young african mother having fun with her baby and smile at home.

4 Through 6 Months

This age is a prime time for sound discovery and exploration, as well as understanding and expressing basic emotions like happiness and sadness. Without this most basic “emotional intelligence,” children can’t develop the ability to communicate meaningfully with others.

What’s On Track

The world is a noisy place, and your baby knows it! He’ll start to pay more attention to music now, and even respond to changes in the tone of your voice – a sign that he understands your emotions and is learning how to respond to subtle communication cues. His repertoire of sounds will increase, too, from simple coos to excited squeals and distressed whines. Listen to him babbling: He should make many different sounds, including the consonants P, B and M. He’ll also start to giggle and laugh. He might even begin responding to his own name, as well as when you tell him “no.”

What To Watch For

  • Not turning head toward sound by 4 months
  • No laughing or squealing by 6 months

7 Through 12 Months

During these months, babies becomes more aware of the rhythm and pattern of speech. They start learning to practice turn-taking in conversations. This means being quiet while spoken to and “talking” when the other person stops or asks a question. Now is also prime time for imitating different speech sounds, so first words begin to emerge at this age.

What’s On Track

Your baby probably likes playing peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake, and both games are good practice for anticipating when it’s his turn to say something in a conversation. His babbling should contain some jargon, or sounds with inflection that almost sound like conversational chatter but aren’t real words, and imitation of words you say. He’ll probably be using vocalizations – aside from crying – to get your attention, and these sounds are building blocks for forming words later. Nonverbal gestures like waving, pointing, shaking his head “no” and holding out arms to be picked up are also part of the equation now. His understanding of language is growing, too, and he probably looks at or points to objects (like cup, shoe, book, milk) when you name them. He can also respond to simple verbal requests. Many babies use at least one or two word-sounds consistently by their first birthday, even if they aren’t pronounced perfectly.

What To Watch For

  • Not using actions to get attention by 7 months
  • No babbling by 8 months
  • No interest in games like peek-a-boo by 8 months
  • Not imitating sounds by 12 months
  • No gestures (waving, pointing, shaking head) or any single words by 12 months

Closeup portrait of a beautiful mother reading book to cute baby

12 Through 18 Months

The more words they know, the better toddlers can successfully navigate the world – and the people – around them. During these months, babies’ “receptive language” – what they understand – expands rapidly. As it does, toddlers can follow directions and become more active participants in their daily routine.

What’s On Track

She’s learning what so many words mean, and is proud to show off her knowledge by labeling parts of her body (head, belly, hands, feet, etc.), pointing to pictures in a book when they’re named (“Where’s the dog?”) and following one-step directions. Understanding more means she will be able to better anticipate changes to her routine, too. Her vocabulary is rapidly growing and she says more words every month, even if they don’t sound perfect yet. More beginning consonant sounds are also being added to her repertoire. By the end of this period, she may speak about 20 to 60 words but understand almost 200!

What To Watch For

  • Not saying 3 to 5 words by 15 months
  • Not seeming to know the function of common household objects (brush, phone, utensils)
  • Not knowing how to get your attention to show you something of interest or to request help by 18 months
  • Not imitating actions or words by 18 months.

19 Through 24 Months

Toddlers’ vocabularies expand and they begin to combine words together to more clearly express their needs and wants. Having more words at their disposal also means they can talk about what they observe around them and engage others in conversation.

What’s On Track

Parents, watch what you say—you have a little parrot at home! If he hasn’t already, your toddler will start repeating words he hears in conversation – that’s how he learns the words. He’s also combining two or more words together to ask questions and make requests (“Where mama?” “More milk.”), small ways he can begin to exert a little control of his own. In addition to pointing to an object (or a picture of one) when it’s named, he may be saying them himself now when he points to them. He can also follow two- and even three-step directions now (“Pick up your cup and put it in the sink.”), and will probably love using this newfound skill to help out around the house.

What To Watch For

  • Does not make at least six consonant sounds by 20 months
  • Does not follow simple directions by 21 months
  • Has fewer than 15 words at 24 months
  • Doesn’t point to named pictures in a book by 24 months
  • Doesn’t combine two or more words by 24 months

About Kristin Zimmermann

Celeb-obsessed freelance writer Kristin Zimmermann also works as the content and social-media manager for mshopefoundation.com. When not writing or reading she is dabbling in floristry, gardening, cooking, and more recently, organic chemistry -- or making her own beauty products with organic ingredients.
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