When do kids start talking? The question is common among parents. Watching your baby discover their new world is a wonderful, fun, and sometimes stressful time in a parent’s life! 

There are many resources for guiding you in your child’s development – books/pamphlets, pediatricians, friends, family, and even grandparents – all there to support you. Wondering when to expect sounds and words to emerge is a natural question. 

Communication in babies

Communication development has its roots in social interaction with parents and other caregivers during everyday activities. Your child actually begins to communicate with you very early on in life through simple cooing, babbling sounds, gestures, and facial expressions, which later blossom into simple, then more complex words and word combinations. 

By learning to communicate, children are able to interact with others for a variety of reasons such as, expressing their wants and needs, thoughts and ideas as well as likes and dislikes. Your child’s growth in social communication is important because it helps your child connect with you, while learning language and play concepts. It also sets the stage for gaining knowledge and future success in school.

What to expect for language at different ages

Appreciating the differences among children, it is important to remember that each child will develop at their own pace. The following are just a few guidelines of what you might expect at various stages of speech and language development. 

Newborn to 9 months

At this stage, infants communicate with sounds and vocal expressions. Those include:

  • cooing
  • crying for pleasure or displeasure
  • smiling at a familiar face
  • babbling with changing tones 

Ages 9 to 16 months

Communication development starts in the first year of life and goes far beyond learning how to talk. Research with young children indicates that the development of gestures during the time from nine to 16 months can predict a child’s language ability at two years or older.

While the order or specific gestures may vary slightly, children should be using new gestures each month between the months nine and 16. 

Examples of gestures include:

  • taking an object from a parent and learning to give an object
  • head shaking for refusal
  • raising arms up to be picked up
  • holding up and ‘showing' an object to a caregiver
  • waving “bye-bye”
  • reaching or tapping and pointing to request a desired item
  • clapping to show enjoyment 
  • hands up (“I don’t know”) or “high fives”

Ages 12 to 18 months

During this time, parents will begin to see more language with:

  • single words emerging
  • commenting on object/action with a point, vocalization, or single word such as, “uh oh”
  • repeating words 
  • engaging in social games (peek-a-boo) and rhymes/finger plays

Ages 18 to 24 months

Typical language development during this stage may include:

  • single words to name objects and gain attention, such as “mama” and “dada”
  • pointing to body parts
  • imitating words modeled by others
  • initiating conversation with phrases such as, “What’s that?” 
  • using two-word phrases, such as “Mama go” or “Bye-bye Dada”

Ages 24 to 30 months

At two years of age, your toddler’s skills will continue to evolve. Some examples include: 

  • listening to stories
  • following simple related commands, such as “Pick up your toys and put away”
  • responding to simple what questions
  • substituting/omitting sounds is not uncommon
  • combining words to express relations, such as “my baby” or “Daddy sleeping”
  • engaging in simple pretend play, such as feeding a baby doll

Ages 2 ½ to 3 years

From ages two and a half to three years, your child is beginning to engage in cooperative play. Continued communication skills and language development during this period may include:

  • responding to concrete questions, such as where, who or yes/no 
  • improving speech clarity
  • learning concepts such as in, on, or under, and matching colors
  • developing grammar, such as “Daddy’s car,” “baby’s sleeping,” or “I want to go”

Ages 3 to 4 years

During this stage a child will further develop their conversation skills. It is common for them to be engaging in longer conversations with more intelligible speech. At this point, your child may also be 

  • clarifying to further explain their meaning when listener has not understood
  • assuming another role during pretend play
  • responding to why questions, object use and logic-based questions, such as “What do you do when you’re hungry?”
  • beginning to ask questions in order to gain information

Ages 4 to 5 years

These are the years when a child’s speech becomes more easily understood, with fewer sound errors. At this point, your child may be 

  • responding to complex questions such as when and how
  • telling longer stories
  • using indirect requests, such as “I sure love ice cream!” to request something
  • grammar should be well established at this point

Please remember the information represents just a few markers for children’s speech-language and general communication development. If you have questions or concerns regarding your child’s speech and language skills, please consult with your pediatrician for a comprehensive assessment with a certified speech-language pathologist.  

Anne M. Ferraro, MS, CCC, SLP

Anne M. Ferraro, MS CCC SLP, is a senior speech–language pathologist with Lifespan Rehabilitation Services and the speech-language pathology program.