Early language development in babies and toddlers

September 14, 2023

Early language development in babies and toddlers

Over their first year of life and long before any actual words appear, babies are working hard to develop key communication skills. These skills, including understanding words and actions, use of gestures, shared attention and interaction, all support the development of talking.

In this article, Childhealthy’s Lead Paediatrician, Dr Yiannis discusses speech and language development in children with Jennifer Warwick, paediatric speech and language therapist.

Healthy child smiling

How do babies learn to talk?

Babies’ first words are one of the most eagerly awaited milestones for parents.

But language development encompasses much more than just words and how children pronounce them.

Speech, language and communication are important to a whole range of other developmental areas and learning including social interaction, problem-solving, literacy and numeracy.

Research has described language as a ‘super skill’ that can help with school readiness and also predicts skills in other areas including reading and maths.

At what age do children start learning to communicate?

Babies are amazing and they learn so much about communication long before they say any words. In their first year, they develop important skills that help lay the foundation for the development of speech, language and communication.

From a few months old, babies are interested in looking at your face and listening to your voice. From birth, babies make a range of noises which, over time, start to have a clearer purpose and might mean something to you – for example cooing sounds to express happiness.

Typically, children aged 12-18 months are able to:

  • Understand some simple questions like ‘where’s your nose?’
  • Say up to 20 words (they might not sound clear).
  • Babble and sing to themselves.
  • Use gestures such as waving, reaching, pointing and blowing kisses.

Typically, by age 2 you can expect that your child will

  • Understand between 200-500 words.
  • Copy sounds and words.
  • Use at least 50 words and start linking words together.
  • Enjoy pretend play such as feeding dolly.

How early should you teach a child a second language?

Children learn language from interaction; which is why children who are bilingual can easily learn two languages without being specifically ‘taught’. One common myth around language development is that bilingualism causes language difficulties, this isn’t the case at all and growing up bilingual is such a benefit for children.

The best way for parents to support children learning two languages is to talk to their little one in the language that they feel most fluent and comfortable as is important for children to hear a fluent model of language.

How common are speech and language difficulties in children?

For most babies, learning to talk happens easily; however, 1 in 10 children have a speech and language difficulty or delay in learning to talk.

In fact, speech delay is the most common developmental delay. Not surprisingly, toddlers who have difficulties with communicating have increased tantrums as they can struggle to communicate with those around them.

How can parents support their child’s development?

It goes without saying that all parents want their children to be confident and competent communicators.

As a parent, you don’t need to ‘teach’ your child to talk, but there are lots of things that you can do to support language development.

Try incorporating some of these tips into your everyday routines and activities:

  • Be face-to-face and at your child’s level when you chat and play.
  • Follow your little one’s interest in play.
  • In young babies, copy the sounds that they make.
  • As your child gets older, try to resist the temptation to ask lots of questions. Asking ‘what’s that’ all the time doesn’t always lead to two-way interaction and little conversations. Instead of asking them what they want, offer a choice e.g. ‘Do you want milk or water?’
  • Make lots of comments on what your child is doing. Instead of saying ‘what are you doing?’ say ‘you are splashing!’ By commenting and adding language to what your child is doing you are helping them to hear and learn new words.
  • Use gestures – for little ones, baby sign classes are really helpful.
  • Join in and play!

Remember that children develop at different times and contact us that a delay in speech and language can be very common.

If you have any concerns about your little one’s language development, you can talk to one of our paediatricians as a first step. We know that seeking advice early is best.


Related articles

February 10, 2023

Common Neurological Conditions in Children

Read more February 7, 2023

Hand, Foot And Mouth In Children And Babies

Read more January 13, 2023

Information On Group A Streptococcus Infection (Strep A)

Read more View all articles

Book your appointment

Clinic, remote appointments and home visits are available daily.

We can always find a time to suit you, so please do ask if you are having difficulty finding a suitable time.

Book an appointment