What Most Parents/Caregivers Don’t Know About Early Language Development

language development in infants and toddlers

Most people know that a child typically says their first word around 12 months old.  Would you be surprised to know that there are many developmental milestones that occur before 12 months old which are key indicators of a child's language development?  All before that first word emerges!


Let's chat a bit about early language development - about everything that typically happens before we hear that first word.  These milestones are so crucial - maybe even more important than the first word!

What Happens Before a Child's First Word?

There are milestones for intentional eye gaze, responding to sounds and language, babbling, participating in simple turn-taking games, and intentional gesture use.


Between 4-6 months old, a child typically*...

  • Moves eyes in direction of sounds
  • Responds to changes in tone of your voice
  • Notices toys that make sounds
  • Pays attention to music 
  • Babbling sounds more speech-like with many different sounds, including p, b, and m
  • Chuckles and laughs
  • Vocalizes excitement and displeasure
  • Makes gurgling sounds when left alone and when playing with you

Between 7-12 months old, a child typically*…

  • Enjoys games like peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake 
  • Turns and looks in direction of sounds
  • Listens when spoken to 
  • Recognizes words for common items like “cup”, “shoe”, “book”, or “juice” 
  • Begins to respond to requests (e.g., “Come here” or “Do you want more?”) 
  • Babbling has both long and short groups of sounds (e.g., “tata upup bibibibi”) 
  • Uses speech or non-crying sounds to get and keep attention 
  • Uses gestures to communicate (e.g., waving, holding arms to be picked up) 
  • Imitates different speech sounds

*Adapted from the American Speech Language Hearing Association


For more information about gesture development, check out the First Words Project, which describes the 16 gestures children should use by 16 months old.

What's a Word?

Now that your child is showing all of these important pre-verbal milestones, how do you know when they’ve said that first word? You think you heard a word, but is it?


Usually around a child’s 1st birthday, a child begins to use a word approximation to refer to an item, a person, or an action.  Your child is not expected to produce the word perfectly (just as you would say it) at this age.  Instead, we consider a child’s production a true word when they use the same production for the same item, person, or action every time.  For example, if your child says “buh buh” for their “bottle” every time they are pointing to and looking at their bottle, THAT is a word!

Is Your Child Not Quite Meeting These Milestones?

Take action! The sooner we intervene, the better. Give us a call at 410-274-0041 to speak with a speech-language pathologist about your concerns.  We can help you decide if now is the right time to have your child evaluated.

Shanna Klump is a speech-language pathologist and CEO of Kid Connections Therapy, a speech/language therapy clinic in Severna Park, Maryland.