So far, your baby's main way to communicate has been to cry, loudly and often. Fortunately, though, she'll soon go through 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.
When your baby starts "talking" about this and that, 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.
Obviously, there's a social component, too. Long before she says a word, your babe learns the rules of language and socialization by watching how you react to her sounds and to conversational partners as you take turns talking. Babies are hardwired to learn language and are affected by how others engage verbally with them.
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.
There are many things you can do to help aid your baby's speech and language development:
Once your baby has had more practice using his lips and tongue to form sounds, usually around 6 to 7 months, his babbles will become more speech-like. So you'll hear a bigger variety of sounds, like "ba ba-pa-ta-bi bi bi," Dr. Paul says.
It may seem as though your little guy is just 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 he may pause after he says 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 going on and 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 really talking? "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.
Remember: Children are different and 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 a conversation with your pediatrician and a speech-language pathologist. And call your local public school at any age—the earlier a child gets help for a speech or language problem, the better.