Before Their First Words

Before Their First Words... 

Early on, babies are watching, listening and learning from those around them. They watch your facial expressions and listen to the tone of your voice.  This helps them to feel safe and secure and to understand the world around them. Watching you also helps them to communicate by imitating what they are seeing and hearing. You are their best teacher!

Let's talk baby talk!

According to various research projects, there is a set of indicators that can help you in detecting a problem with communication, speech, and language very early.  It is possible to detect a communication problem even before a child reaches the age of 12 months.  You just need to keep watching them closely!

Start looking for signs!

Here is what to look for:

1.      Visual contact, facial expressions and gestures - Smiles are one of the first facial expressions a baby develops.  Although the first smiles are just a reflex, by about 4 weeks of age the first true smile appears.  At about 6 months, infants communicate using eye gaze to ask for objects or to play with an adult.  Also, children communicate through various facial expressions in order to socialize, protest, refuse an object, or share their feelings.  Observe them carefully and interpret their facial expressions.

 At around 9 months, children will spontaneously start using concrete gestures such as showing an object (i.e. ball) or pushing an object away.  At 11 months, children will start using more symbolic gestures, such as "bye-bye" and pointing.  Gestures are an important part of a child's communication development.  You can help by using and imitating gestures with your child.  Get those hands talking!

 2.   Using communication - Babies first learn to communicate to make contact with other people and to satisfy their needs.  This happens long before they start using words.  They develop language by hearing us speak.  Children need to hear language to learn to use language.  So, pay attention to the reasons for communication. Babies use communication to protest, to cry, to ask for things, to socialize and to get your attention.

 3.      Producing sounds and babbling - At approximately 6 months of age, babies use lots   sounds and they even start babbling.  By 10 months, the repetition of a syllable (e.g. babababa; badabada)  should appear.  By 12 months, if a young baby does not babble, he should be referred to a speech and language pathologist (Screening Clinics | First Words).  Babbling is a must for word acquisition!  You can also help babies and children babble along by :

  • Imitating their sounds, babbling and words
  • Giving frequent models of the sounds or words
  • Naming objects, actions and people
  • Being face-to-face - the baby will benefit from seeing your facial expressions and how you make sounds. 

4.   Understanding language - Learning to speak starts at birth; infants (e.g. 6 weeks old) should be surrounded by language.  Even if young babies do not understand the meaning of the words you use, they understand a lot through your way of touching and holding them, facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures.  This is how they start to understand language. In their first year, young children's comprehension (understanding) grows very quickly.

 At as early as 12 months, babies understand many words and can follow simple requests. To help a young child understand you better:

  • Use a smaller number of words
  • Repeat, repeat and repeat!
  • Add gestures, actions and point toward the objects or people
  • Speak more slowly
  • Vary your facial expressions and tone of voice

5.   Word production - Learning to speak is a gradual process.  Babbling and the appearance of the first words are closely linked.  Usually infants say their first words around the age of 12 months.  In fact, the appearance of the first words may happen anywhere between 8 and 15 months of age; this is considered to be the normal range for the appearance of first words.  But after 15 months, if the baby has not said his/her first words, consider referring him/her for speech and language screening.  Continue encouraging the child to take turns imitating and repeating sounds.  Keep on naming all the objects they see and the actions they do! 

6.   Playing abilities- For young children, socializing and communicating includes lots of play.  You can watch children's abilities to take their turn in simple games.  Watch if they show their interest in playing social games, such as "peek-a-boo", with you.  Later, you can look for the child's ability to imitate and play more symbolic games (e.g. 18 months - taking a spoon and feeding a doll).

So much is happening in the baby's first year. As a parent, your job is to watch it happen and play along. Here are some more tips for communicating with your baby:

Be face-to-face

  • Watch to see how your baby communicates.
  • Look at your baby when you talk with him.
  • Respond to every smile, wiggle or giggle your baby makes.


  • Imitate the baby's sounds, smiles and gestures.
  • Repeat often - it's ok to repeat the same actions, games and songs over and over.
  • Smile when you play with your baby.

Talk with your baby

  • Talk often to your baby - your voice is familiar to your baby.
  • Talk about what you and your baby see, hear and what you're doing.
  • Smile when you talk to your baby.

The First Words Speech and Language Program of Ottawa has many resources and tips on our website to help you build your child's language skills.  We encourage you to check your child's speech and language milestones and seek help if they are not meeting these milestones. 

Remember - early intervention is the best approach!



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