Speech Development


When your child begins to communicate, it is amazing to watch and experience. What will their first word be? Mama or Dada? This can also be a time where parents worry. What does normal speech development look like? What sounds should your baby be making? What if your 3-year-old doesn’t pronounce ‘R” sounds? We are going to learn about typical speech development and also easy things you can do to help your child’s speech development.



Speech development includes two types of language. The first is receptive language which is the ability to understand language. This develops ahead of the second type of language which is expressive language. Expressive language is the ability to communicate wants, needs, thoughts and ideas. Expressive language includes verbal and non-verbal communication.


Once your baby is born, your baby will start communicating. This first communication is through crying. As you get to know your baby, you will learn that cries mean different things. You will be able to tell a fussy cry versus a hunger cry versus and overtired baby cry.

Your baby will start cooing and making noises for fun at around 2 months old. Between 2 and 4 months old, their vocalizations will increase. They test out making noises, your reaction to their noises, and volume! Cooing can be soft, or it can be very loud! It can often sound like you have a seagull in your house.

Babies also start learning about conversations! When you talk or interact with your baby, they will start making noises back to you. They even try to mirror the noises you are making.


At 4 months your baby will start laughing and giggling. They will also engage in vocal play. This includes making raspberry noises (and spitting), making clicking noises, and playing with their tongue. Babies will continue to engage in “conversations” with you.


Your baby will start babbling at this time. This type of babbling is called reduplication babbling. It involves a consonant-vowel combination such as ba-ba-ba-ba or ma-ma-ma-ma.


After your baby establishes reduplication babbling, they start non-reduplicative babbling. This is when they do consonant-vowel combinations that differ such as ba-da-ma. They also start to jargon. This is when it sounds like they are saying long sentences but there are no real words. Babies should also have intonation to their sounds by 12 months This means their sounds are not flat but show emotion and the pitch goes up and down. Some babies will start to develop their first word during this time.

By 12 months your baby should be looking towards sounds, responding to their name, waving hello or goodbye, and look at something you are pointing at.


Your baby will start developing words or word approximation during this time. They will try to imitate simple words. First words are often names for people (mom, dad, siblings, or grandparents) but can include other objects, exclamation words or sounds.

These are the most common first words (top 10)

  • Mama
  • Hi
  • Dada/Papa
  • Yum
  • No
  • Bye/li>
  • Baba
  • Boo
  • Yes
  • Ball

Your baby will also understand simple questions and directions. They often communicate non-verbally during this time. This includes head nods, sign language and pointing. Pointing is a very important milestone for children. They should be pointing at objects they want you to see or name for them.

18 to 24 MONTHS

By 18 months language starts to take off! By the ends of this time your baby will have over 50 words and be combining words into 2-3-word phrases such as “more milk”! They can communicate their wants and needs, particularly for foods. They can point and name some body parts and they will know many animal noises. They will have mastered the P sound.

By the time your child turns two, they should be able to follow a simple one step request or go get an object you ask them to get such as a book or shoes. They will bring things to show you and point at things they are interested in. They will be able to point at pictures in a book if you ask them to identify an object. They also will engage in pretend play. Pretend play includes driving cars around, taking care of a baby, practicing with a doctor’s kit, or making pretend food in a kitchen.


Between 2 and 3 your child will start speaking in sentences. This is an important time for grammar development. They will start using pronouns such as you, me, I, her. They also will start to use past tense and plurals. They will have mastered these sounds: B, M, D, T, NG, H, Y, N, F, G, and K.

At this age they learn spatial concepts such as in, out, off, and on, They also start using descriptive words like big, soft, or happy. They will be able to answer questions and when asking questions, they will use question inflection (the pitch of the word goes up towards the end of the sentence).

As they get closer to three their speech is becoming more clear and more understandable to you but strangers may still have a hard time understanding your child. They still may have common phonological errors (this will be discussed below). These are common at this age.


Your child will become much more understandable during this time to you and to strangers. Many common phonological errors correct at this age. They will have mastered the above sounds as well as J, S, CH, L, V, SH, Z, and Y. Your child will be able to hold a conversation with members outside of their family.

They also start to be able to group words together. This means they can categorize strawberries as food and a shirt as clothing. They can better describe objects with more adjectives. They can also express ideas more clearly and describe their surroundings. They start using “-ing” with words.

At this age they learn the power of language! They realize they can use language for fun or to elicit emotions from others. They start to tell jokes or say funny things to make you laugh. Unfortunately, on the flip side they can say things that make you upset to elicit a reaction.

After this age, language continues to mature. Children continue to improve their articulation and continue to drop phonological errors. They understand more complex ideas and questions. They start using irregular words that don’t fit normal patterns (such as ran or fell, mice/mouse). They also have great imaginations and use words to create stories.


We are often asked how many words a child should have for each age. First, you need to know what counts for a word. A word counts if they use it:

  • consistently
  • independently (not just repeating)
  • intentionally

Approximations (so ba for ball), exclamatory words (uh oh, wow, boom), animal noises (moo, grrr, woof, meow) and sign-language all count as words!
Now that we know what we can count as words, you can see how many your child has and compare that to our expectations for word development below.

  Milestone (minimum) Average Above Average
12 months 1 5 14+
18 months 5-10 50 110
24 months 50 300 400+
36 months 350 1000+  

Remember words do not need to be perfect to count! Intelligibility increases as your child gets older. We expect a stranger to understand this percentage of your child’s speech at these ages:

  • 25-50% at age 18-24 months
  • 50-75% at age 2-3
  • 75-90% at age 4
  • 90-100% at age 5

Every child’s development is different. Children also do not “multitask” when they are developing, so when your child is learning to walk, they may PAUSE saying words or getting new words. But they should not regress and lose receptive or expressive language skills. They should continue developing words or other language milestones after a short pause. If you have concerns about your child’s language development, please speak with your primary care provider. It is important to be proactive in seeking help with speech.


Phonological errors are a normal part of speech development. There are a few types of these processes, how you may hear them in your child’s speech and when you can expect for them to improve.

    Example Can Last Until
Consonant Deletion Not saying last consonant Ba for ball Age 3
Assimilation Making a sound similar to a nearby sound Tat for hat Age 3
Reduplication Repeating the first syllable or stressed syllable Wawa for water Age 3
Fronting Back of the mouth sounds are made with the similar front of the mouth sound Dup for cup Age 3.5
Cluster Reduction Not using a consonant cluster Poon for spoon Age 5
Stopping Not using the weak syllable of a multisyllable word Nana for banana Age 4
Gliding Replacing a consonant with a w or y sounds, usually it is an l or r that is replaced Weg for leg or wun for run Age 6


Being bilingual does NOT delay speech in children. When looking at word count, you count words for both languages. Most often, when first developing language your child will not say a word in both languages while their brain works things out. For example, if you are raising your child to speak English and Portuguese, they may say flower in English but refuse to say the word in Portuguese but may say dog in Portuguese and refuse to say that word in English. Usually by age 2-3 this is all worked out and they can easily interchange both languages.

There is not right or wrong way to raise a child to be bilingual. Some families like each parent to speak a language, some use one language at home and one outside the home, and some families mix languages and change use depending on context. Research has shown there is no method which is better for language development. The most important part of bilingual language development is the proficiency of the speaker and the quantity of the exposure to the languages.


To help your child develop language, you need to use language with them starting early.
Here are a few things you can actively to do to help their language development:

  • Be a broken record! Repeat words frequently. For example, if you are taking a walk and see a dog you could say “Look at the dog. That’s a big, fluffy dog. Hi dog”.
  • Use “parentese”. This is the higher pitch sing song type voice we all hate to hear back of videos later!
  • When you talk to your child exaggerate sounds, words and pitch
  • Babble back to your younger baby and engage in “vocal play” including raspberries!
  • Read! When you read to your baby or toddler have them sit facing you so they can see your face while you are speaking
    • When reading make it interactive! Point at objects in the book or label objects
    • Ask questions about what you are reading. When they are younger, answer your own questions!
  • Don’t just label nouns! When playing you can teach spatial words such as “in, out, up, on”.
  • Use their interest! If they love trains, incorporate trains into your play and use those to teach early words.
  • Ask and Answer! Start of asking a question and model the answer. As they get older, you can cue your child with the starting sound of the answer, and as they start using the word more you can ask the question and see if they finish the word. Make sure you give them time to answer! It can take them a few seconds to find the right word.
  • Make things silly! Don’t be afraid to be silly with your child. Do something silly, then try to get them to ask for more!
  • Talk through your day! They are lots of opportunities for you to teach words. While you open up the newest Amazon package you can practice open, close, in and out, box, and surprise!
  • Movement helps especially when paired with “parentese” so don’t be afraid to get active or even just move objects. If you are playing with blocks, start stacking them. Even that amount of movement helps with language development!
  • Sign language! Signing can help your baby develop language. Babies have control over their hands before they can form words. Early communication via signs is very rewarding for both your baby and you. Pair the sign with a word (for example when you do the sign for more (your fingers from both hands coming together and tapping” make sure you are saying more at the same time.
  • If your child makes errors, don’t correct just rephrase with the correct (exaggerated) pronunciation or grammar.

Language development is amazing to watch. But what if your child is not progressing as you expected? Next week we will discuss issues with language development or particular challenges children face with receptive and expressive language.

Children’s Health Care of Newburyport, Massachusetts and Haverhill, Massachusetts is a pediatric healthcare practice providing care for families across the North Shore, Merrimack Valley, southern New Hampshire, and the Seacoast regions. The Children’s Health Care team includes pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners who provide comprehensive pediatric health care for children, including newborns, toddlers, school aged children, adolescents, and young adults. Our child-centered and family-focused approach covers preventative and urgent care, immunizations, and specialist referrals. Our services include an on-site pediatric nutritionist, special needs care coordinator, and social workers. We also have walk-in appointments available at all of our locations for acute sick visits. Please visit chcmass.com where you will find information about our pediatric doctors, nurse practitioners, as well as our hours and services.

Disclaimer: this health information is for educational purposes only. You, the reader, assume full responsibility for how you choose to use it.

Go Back