Your baby's ability to communicate starts long before you actually hear her speak. In fact, language development depends first on oral motor skills (the ability to use the tongue and lips to make sounds) as well as a baby's ability to hear and process the sounds around them (called receptive language skills). These skills appear initially as coos (starting around 2 months) and babbles (starting around 6 months), which are ways your baby expresses her drive and desire to mimic what she hears. As she becomes a toddler, those sounds eventually evolve into clearer words, like "Mommy," "bye-bye," or "more." Between 2 and 3 years, your child will begin to string those words together in short sentences, such as "No more juice, Mommy."
It's also important to consider nonverbal forms of communication -- a very important factor in language development -- and not concern yourself only with the number of words your child can say. Even if your child's not a chatterbox, during his second year he should at least be able to communicate his needs and desires to you by gesturing, pointing, and making sounds and facial expressions. If your toddler is able to let you know what he wants and needs nonverbally, then he is probably doing just fine.
That said, there are certain milestones your child should be hitting along the way. Let your baby's pediatrician know if...
• Your baby doesn't look at you or follow you with her eyes when you speak.
• Your baby doesn't babble by 7 months.
• Your toddler doesn't say any words by 19 months (most toddlers have a 50-word vocabulary by 18 months).
• Your toddler can't show you what he wants or needs by using sounds and gestures by 15 to 18 months (i.e., taking your hand, walking you to the toy shelf to show you what he wants to play with).
• Your child isn't putting two words together (such as "want ball") by age 2 1/2.
If you have concerns about your child's language development, be sure to consult with your child's healthcare provider and see that he has a hearing test. Hearing problems are a common cause of speech delays (a baby who doesn't hear well can have trouble imitating sounds). If your baby's hearing is fine, yet he doesn't talk or gesture, your pediatrician may suggest you see a speech therapist, since many language delays caught at this early stage can be easily corrected -- and the earlier you seek treatment, the better the results.
Copright 2003 Meredith Corporation. Updated 2009.