Helping Parents Understand How Kids Learn to Talk

mother, daughter, toddler, cell phone, talking, red, brunette, pink, sweater, grass, green, pavement

Watching kids learn to talk is a wonderful, mysterious process.

It can also be filled with worry and curiosity for parents. Moms (and dads) may have lots of questions like, “is Max a late talker?” or, “is it OK that Ella says ‘wabbit’ instead of ‘rabbit’?” Many children learn to talk at their own pace, some talking a bit later than their peers, and that’s perfectly OK.

However, extra intervention is also important for children who aren’t meeting all their key milestones. Research shows that the earlier a child receives extra help, the better off she will be in the long run.

Here are 10 speech and language milestones that babies, toddlers, and elementary school kids should hit. If you notice that your child isn’t achieving these milestones, you will want to check in with your pediatrician, audiologist, and speech-language therapist (also called a speech-language pathologist, or simply speech therapist).

#1 Your baby should respond to loud sounds.

Sure, babies sleep a lot, but a normally developing baby should startle if he’s awake and there’s a loud noise around him, like a car horn honking or a dog barking. If you don’t notice this reflex, your first stop should be a visit to an audiologist to get his hearing checked; hearing is the foundation for recognizing speech and language.

#2 Your baby should be babbling by 8 months.

You know all those cute, seemingly-random sounds a baby makes, like “babababa”? They are actually really important building blocks to saying real words later on.

#3 Your baby should respond to her name by 12 months.

Recognizing and responding to her own name is a key milestone in terms of cognitive, speech, language, and hearing development.

#4 Your baby should understand familiar words and phrases by 12 months.

Babies this age have great receptive language skills – that means they are really good at absorbing and understanding language even if they can’t speak it yet. A one-year-old baby should be able to follow a simple command like “point to your nose!” or look up when he hears you say, “let’s have a snack!”

#5 Your child should say a real word by 15 months.

New parents love to ask the question: when should my little one say her first word? Well, it depends! Sometimes a baby as young as ten months can say a simple word like “mama”; it’s common for babies to hit this milestone around a year, and many babies wait a bit longer. But by 15 months, kids should be saying at least one or two real words.

#6 You should be able to understand at least half of what your two-year-old is saying.

It takes a while for a child to get all her speech sounds down. But once a child celebrates her second birthday, her parents and regular caregivers should be able to comprehend about half of her words. If not, she may need an evaluation from a speech language therapist.

#7 Your child should say two-word combinations by 24 months.

Specialists consider a two-word phrase to be the gateway to saying a sentence. This can be something simple like “mama, up” or “more milk.”

#8 Your three-year-old should speak in sentences and use very basic grammar forms.

If your child isn’t doing this yet, he may need a bit of help catching up to his peers.

#9 Your pre-school-aged child should have relatively fluid speech.

This should be the case even if he’s gone through a time when he’s made a lot of sound, syllable, and word repetitions for several months. Lots of young kids stutter when they are picking up the basics of language. Some children grow out of stuttering; some need extra help to address it. If your child consistently seems to get stuck on sounds and words, and this has been happening for more than three months, check in with a speech language therapist.

#10 Your typically developing 7-year-old should be able to master tricky sounds such as “r,” “l,” “s.”

These  sounds are really hard to say, and it’s common for kids to have issues with them even in the early elementary years. It’s not usual to hear a kindergartner say “wed” instead of “red” or “wight” instead of “light,” or similar errors, but eventually, around first or second grade, you’ll want to get extra assistance to help your child say these sounds correctly if she isn’t doing it on her own.

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Michelle MacRoy-Higgins, PhD and Carlyn Kolker are the authors of Time to Talk: What You Need to Know About Your Child’s Speech and Language Development. Higgins is an associate professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Hunter College in New York City. A practicing speech-language therapist for more than 15 years, she has worked with hundreds of infants, toddlers, and young children. Carlyn Kolker is a freelance writer and former reporter for Bloomberg News and Reuters.

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