Baby's first words

Child psychologist and Baby & Toddler Club expert Dr Richard Woolfson explains how your child learns to talk and what you can do to encourage him.

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How old should your baby be?

If your toddler didn’t say his first word before the end of his first year, he will almost certainly have achieved this milestone by the time he’s reached the age of 15 months. By 18 months, the chances are he’ll be able to say several words himself and understand the meaning of literally hundreds more. There’s one word, however, that generally gets a negative reaction from him – and that’s when you say “no”!

Stages of speech

Baby in a white top
There's one word that toddlers don't like and that's no!

At 12-15 months, your toddler:
• says his first word, often “mama” or “dada”
• recognises his own name but can’t say it
• shouts at you when he’s cross
• makes tuneful sounds when hearing familiar music
• tries to sing along with you.

At 16-18 months, your toddler:
• consistently uses about six or seven words
• listens to instructions, then carries out the request
• combines language and gestures to express his needs
• begins to learn the names of basic parts of the body
• enjoys songs and nursery rhymes.

Top tips to encourage speech:
Chat Much of a child’s language learning occurs naturally through hearing everyday language being spoken, so keep talking to him.
Sing He doesn’t know all the words yet but encourage him to sing along with you to pop songs and rhymes.
Interpret When he gestures towards the fridge indicating he’d like a drink, put his request into words, saying, “I think you’d like some juice.”
Read He’ll love looking at picture books and story books while you read to him. Let him snuggle up closely and point out what’s happening.
Take action Toddlers love action rhymes, such as I’m a Little Teapot or Incy Wincy Spider. Have fun acting and singing them together.
Play games To improve his listening skills, name a simple household object and ask your toddler to show you where it is. Be prepared to offer him some hints!

Baby talk

You may instinctively talk to your baby in short sentences, with large gaps between phrases, using baby words that imitate sounds (such as bow wow for dog) and adopting a voice tone you don’t use when talking to another adult. It’s known by some as “motherese”, and it’s been discovered that, used in moderation with young babies, it can be helpful in stimulating their language skills.

But by the toddler stage at 12 to 18 months of age, baby talk is less useful as it doesn’t provide a good model for a child to base his own language skills on. He’ll have no incentive to develop his understanding and ability if he only hears simplified “motherese”.

Reading with your one-year-old

Reading books with your child is important because it shows him that talking is fun. Your toddler loves you reading to him, watching the different expressions on your face and listening to your changing voice tone.
Although he isn’t good at talking or reading yet, you’ll find that he tries to join in as you read the story.

Reading has other advantages, too. It focuses your child’s attention, for a few minutes, at least – and this boosts his concentration. It also allows loving physical contact. Hold him snugly against you with one arm while you hold the book in the other hand. It’s a good idea to point to each picture as you talk about it. This helps him establish a connection between the book and the story you’re telling him.