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Learning to talk

6-minute read

Learning to talk is an important part of a child’s development, although many of us take for granted the way a young child interacts with others by using their voice. Learning how to communicate clearly using words and language takes thousands of hours of practice and repetition.

As a parent, you might find it useful to understand how your baby develops their own, unique skills in learning to talk.

How do babies communicate?

Even while they’re still in the womb, babies can hear muffled noises and learn to recognize their mother’s voice. Often, babies will respond to familiar voices by becoming more active.

Babies develop in a head-to-toe direction. The first vital stages of development are centered on ways babies can connect emotionally with those who are caring for them. Establishing eye contact, learning how to smile and coo, and seek to engagement from adults close to them, helps to ensure their survival.

Your baby’s first language

Crying is the main way young babies communicate their needs. They also communicate with others by using sounds and gestures. What starts in the early months as smiling, cooing and babbling, by 12 months becomes clearer attempts to form first words.

From the age of 2 months

Babies start to coo and make sounds that form the building blocks of speech. Babbling is a phase of speech development, and you’ll hear the sounds 'ma ma', 'da da' and 'bubba'. Around this age they also learn to clap their hands and wave bye-bye.

In the first year, babies gradually learn to express themselves in many ways. They copy sounds they hear, blow ‘raspberries’, laugh, imitate a cough and learn to squeal.

After their first birthday

Toddlers can now form clearer words, like 'dog' and 'ball', and then progress until by around 2 years they can say up to 50 words and understand many more.

Between the ages of 3 and 4 years

As they begin to learn language, a lot of what they achieve will be motivated by curiosity. Toddlers learn to ask ‘why’ and repeat words they hear. Their speech starts to become clearer and they chat to themselves. Toddlers will also join in rhymes and songs, and recognise familiar patterns in books.

Between 4 and 5 years

By this time, children have become much clearer in their speech. Fantasy plays a large part in their play and they make up complex stories. Some sounds — such as 'th', 'r' and 'v' — can be more difficult to pronounce. Most children in this age group can have a conversation with an adult and be clear.

Language and speech development

Language and speech development

Learn how you can help your child to talk and develop their language and speech skills.

How do I encourage my baby to learn to talk?

Get used to talking to your baby before they are born. Early emotional connection starts even when babies are in the womb.

After your baby’s birth, speak gently to them and watch and listen for their responses:

  • Name what you are doing and talk about it. Have conversations and encourage them to chat back to you.
  • Be interested when they talk back. Learning is hard work — it’s important you praise their attempts.
  • Get down to their eye level so they can see your mouth moving as you speak. Forming new words is helped by copying what you do.
  • Aim to be ‘in tune’ with your baby, and give them time to react to your voice.
  • Talk with your baby every day, but try not to be too particular about when and how you do this. What’s important is to be authentic and sensitive — your baby will not be critical.
  • Use your baby’s name when you talk to them.
  • Read to your baby every day. Don’t be surprised if they want the same, familiar book each time.

When should I be concerned?

Check your baby’s Child Health Record book to make sure they passed their hearing test at birth. Sometimes a 'refer' test is recommended, in which case the hearing test will need to be repeated in a few weeks.

Hearing loss for any reason can cause delays in learning to talk.

Have your baby checked by a health professional if:

  • you have any concerns about their development
  • they don’t react to loud noises, even from birth
  • they have a significant loss of skills or, they don’t seem equally strong on both sides of their body
  • they don’t respond to sound or sights
  • they are stuttering — most children begin stuttering between 2 and 5 years and although most will stop without treatment, some do not
  • they are not interacting with you or other people.
  • they have limited eye contact
  • they seem floppy, or stiff and tense

‘Red flag’ stages of speech development

Every baby is unique and develops in their own time. Many factors play a role in how children learn to talk. Early identification of speech delay or problems can make a big difference in getting the right level of support.

'Red flags' help to pick up problems in the early stages of a baby's development. Check their progress regularly.

By 6 months Your baby should be starting to babble (e.g. aahh, oohh).
By 9 months They should be pointing and using their hands by waving and clapping. Babbling and using 2 sounds together (e.g. mama, dada, and bubub).
By 12 months They should be making sounds that are more like talking. Responding to familiar words.
By 18 months They should be saying clear words and understanding requests (e.g. 'Give me the ball').
By 2 years They should be learning new words and putting words together.
By 3 years Their speech should be clear enough to be understood by anyone and they are using simple sentences.
By 4 years They should be using speech that can be clearly understood. Able to follow directions that have 2 parts (e.g. 'sit down with your teddy').
By 5 years They should be able to tell you what is wrong and to have a simple conversation.

Who can I speak to for help?

Check with your child health nurse if you have any concerns about your baby’s development. Your GP will also be able to refer your child for assessment and treatment if it’s needed.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2021

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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

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