Understanding Speech Development Milestones in Babies

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I talk about milestones on a near-daily basis with my patients and their families, but I’m also watching out for early milestones with my own son who was born in August – especially since he was born prematurely. As a parent, we hear a lot about early milestones from so many sources—our pediatrician, grandparents, friends, blogs, books, and even friendly strangers in the grocery store. Most of us are familiar with the big ones like sitting up, walking, taking that first bite of solid food, or first words, but sometimes we forget that in order to meet those big milestones, our kids need to meet several little milestones first.

Following are a few of the early communication milestones that lay the groundwork for those precious first words:

Eye gaze, attention to faces, and alerting to sound (Birth to 3 months)

Noticing what they see and hear and paying attention allows our little ones to study our faces and the movements of our mouths as we speak, and to make the connection between what they are hearing and where the noise is coming from. Their tiny brains are busy cataloging all this information, forming connections in the auditory and language centers of the brain.

Cooing/Gurgling (Birth to 3 months)

These first sounds from baby are music to any parent’s ears. Those little growls, ahhs, oohs, and other exclamations of delight are Baby’s way of trying on his voice and seeing what that little mouth can do. Baby is practicing coordinating muscle movements with his lips and tongue as well as using his voice. You might hear loud sounds or soft sounds—it’s all practice and it’s all fun!

Vocalizing excitement and displeasure (4 to 6 months)

Baby laughs and squeals to tell us she’s enjoying life. She might also squall or cry to let us know she’s angry. She’s learning to use her voice to communicate her feelings—even in a very rudimentary way.

Babbling (4 months+)

Baby is starting to use some consonant sounds. At first, they are simple: Ba!, Ma!, Duh! But gradually they get more complex. They are strung together like little nonsense words in a sentence that only Baby understands, but we love to talk right back to them, don’t we? Affirm and encourage those little attempts with responses like, “Oh really? Tell me more!”

When Baby babbles, he is not only practicing using his own little voice, he’s also learning turn taking. I talk, then you talk, then I talk again. This little loop is one of the building blocks of those conversations you’re hoping to have within the next year or so.

Gestures (7 months+)

Baby might be waving, blowing kisses, or holding her arms out to be picked up. We use signs and gestures in our everyday communication and Baby has picked up on these. Her communication repertoire is expanding rapidly now!

First Words (9 to 12 months)

Maybe you’re hoping to hear “Mama” or “Dada”, or maybe your little one’s first word is “dah” for the dog. Whatever that first word is, it will be one of the most wonderful things you’ve ever heard and the result of months and months of practice leading up to it.

What if your child isn’t meeting milestones?

Remember that milestones are typically listed within an age range and children are expected to master each milestone by the upper age of each group. (If you are a parent to a preemie—like me—be sure to consider your child’s adjusted age when you are looking at milestones.) If your child has missed any of these milestones, you’re probably already wondering what you can do to help.

Start out by discussing your concerns with your pediatrician. Have you had your baby’s hearing checked? According to state law, all newborns should receive a newborn hearing screening before being discharged from the hospital, but hearing acuity can change over time due to things like noise exposure or frequent/recurring ear infections. Your next step could be to contact a Speech-Language Pathologist like me. Our passion is helping children learn to communicate and we have several tools in our toolkit to help both you and your child!

How can I encourage communication through play?

Every therapy session is different depending on the individual child, but some examples of play therapy strategies include:

Sound play: Take turns babbling with baby or repeating the sounds he/she is making

Read books/picture books together: Reading is a great way to teach vocabulary, early sentence structure, and even grammar concepts

Narrate your day: Tell your child what you are doing as you give them a bath—you are work on learning body parts and adjectives (“That water is cold/hot/warm”, “Uh oh! The soap is slippery!”, “The washcloth feels so soft”) as well as providing modeling with sentence structure and grammar.

Wherever you are in your milestone journey—whether it’s ahead, right on time, or a little bit behind—be sure to celebrate your child for who he or she is and all they have accomplished so far!

If you’d like more information on early speech and language development, you can find these milestones and more (from Birth to 5 years of age) on the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) website. If you would like to talk with a speech therapist at Kid’s Creek about your child’s milestones and whether he could be helped with speech therapy, contact us for a free consultation.

Margaret Isaacs, MA, CCC-SLP

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