Eagerly anticipating the day your little one says "mama" or "dada"? Find out when babies start babbling and talking, and learn how to improve your child’s language development.

when do babies start talking happy baby sitting on floor
Credit: 5712495/Pixabay

So far, your baby's main method of communication has been crying. Fortunately, though, she'll soon make a huge leap in language development, which will improve her ability to express herself with words. But just as she has to crawl before she walks, she has to babble before she talks.

"Babbling is an important milestone because it represents the beginning of real communication, when a baby starts experimenting with sounds, listening for a reaction, responding, and building social relationships," says Sherry Artemenko, a speech-language pathologist and founder of Play on Words. Keep reading to learn when most babies start talking and how to improve language development.

Talking and Developmental Milestones

When your baby starts "talking," she's flaunting her budding language skills. Sure, you don't have any idea what she's saying, but this gibberish will eventually lead to real words. Her chatter also gives you a peek into her cognitive development, as she memorizes and repeats sounds, takes time to think about what she wants to "say," and learns how to use verbal and nonverbal actions to express her wants and needs.

There's a social component to babbling, too. Long before she says a word, your babe learns the rules of language and socialization by watching you. She sees how you react to her sounds, and she observes how you take turns talking with conversational partners. Babies are hardwired to learn language and mimic how others engage verbally with them.

Stages of Verbal Development in Babies

Your baby's verbal skills will progress through stages as her vocal mechanism matures and she increasingly relates to her environment, Artemenko says. First, vowel-like sounds at birth move to coos and goos at 2 to 3 months. Babbling starts around 4 months of age.

First babbles often include "p," "b," and "m" sounds, which are produced by simply putting the lips together, says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Maryland. So you will hear lots of "puh puh puh," "buh buh buh," and "muh muh muh" sounds initially.

Here are some ways to help your baby's speech and language development:

  • Engage in a conversation by talking to your baby
  • Pause after you say something so that he has time to process your words and "respond"
  • Use different tones and syllables when you talk so that he will try to imitate you and learn new sounds
  • Explain your baby's babble to him. If he says "ma ma ba ba" while looking around, you might say, "Oh, are you looking for your bottle? Where did the bottle go?"

"Research shows that the quantity of words spoken to an infant positively affects language development," Artemenko says, so use proper words to talk, read, and sing to your baby.

When Do Babies Say Their First Word? 

Once your baby has practiced using his lips and tongue to form sounds, usually around 6 to 7 months, his babbles will become more speech-like. You'll hear a wider variety of sounds, like "ba ba-pa-ta-bi-bi-bi," Dr. Paul says.

It may seem as though your little guy is blurting out random sounds, but if you pay close attention, you'll observe changes in tone and inflection when he talks. His voice may rise at the end of a string of babble, as though he's asking a question, or he may mumble under his breath after Aunt Martha goes overboard kissing his cheek.

You'll also notice that your child may pause after saying what's on his mind, seemingly waiting for a response. He learns that a conversation is a back-and-forth thing, not just one person rambling on. 

Focus on what your baby "says" over how he says it; if his tone doesn't make it clear, his facial expressions and body language may do the job. For example, a huge grin and bouncing up and down while he "talks" probably means he's sharing exciting news. On the other hand, if there's a frown on his face and he's pointing at you while using a high-pitched voice, he's likely trying to give you a good scolding!

When do babies start talking clearly and fluently? "Toward the end of your baby's first year, he'll babble in longer strings of varied short nonsense syllables, using the intonation and rhythm mimicking that of an adult," Artemenko says. This stage of jargon is a precursor to speaking first words, which usually happens right around your child's first birthday. Wondering what that magical first word might be? "Dada," "mama," "baby," "ball," "doggie," "book," and "hi" are some common ones, Dr. Paul says.

When to See a Doctor

Remember, children develop skills at different times. As long as your baby's chatter is progressing and she's engaging with you and others, there's likely no need to worry. But if her speech and language development stops or regresses at any point, if she's not babbling and making eye contact or gestures, or if words don't emerge by the time she's 15 months, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician and a speech-language pathologist. Also call your local public school at any age—the earlier a child gets help for a speech or language problem, the better.