Understanding and Encouraging Infant Language Development

Baby playing with toy phone

As soon as babies are born, they begin the process of developing language skills, which includes receiving information and expressing it. All children develop at a unique pace so it's often difficult to tell if your baby is on track in terms of speech and hearing. Developmental milestones help you understand if your child is doing well or may have a larger issue.


According to Isa Marrs, a board-certified pediatric speech-language pathologist, "Babies begin to develop speech and language from the moment they are born. Some research shows that they are learning their mother's voice in the womb. They are absorbing every sound they hear and understanding before they begin to talk. That's why it is so important for parents to always talk to and interact with their babies. They are learning language before they are able to show it."

Newborn to Three Months

According to Marrs, "By the time they are three months old, babies can distinguish between happy and angry tones. They also have several recognizable cries with different meanings. These are both examples of babies learning language." The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) shares other speech and language skills for babies in this age range including:

  • Visible recognition of important environmental sounds, like a caregiver's voice
  • Physical reaction to loud noises
  • Calms down when spoken to
  • Smiles when a caregiver comes into view
  • Demonstrates cries that sound different for different needs
  • Makes "cooing" sounds

Four to Six Months

As infants understand more about their surroundings and abilities, the NIDCD and Mayo Clinic say four to six-month-old babies can typically:

  • baby boy
    Make sounds described as "gurgling" to self
  • Show physical signs of listening to music when it's played
  • Use sounds to indicate likes or dislikes
  • Move eyes to look at origin of a sound
  • "Talk" using a variety of sounds, particularly those that have p, b and m sounds
  • Laugh or giggle
  • Show physical signs of noticing a change in voice tone by a caregiver
  • Recognize basic sounds of the language spoken at home

Seven to Twelve Months

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASLHA) and NIDCD suggest a baby should, by their first birthday, be capable of:

  • Using speech or other sounds instead of crying to indicate needs
  • Turning head in sound direction to locate origin
  • Understanding words for basic items
  • Enjoying interactive games with an adult
  • Following through with a clear, simple, one-step request like "Drop it."
  • Moving beyond singular sounds and including groups of sounds like "bababa"
  • Including gestures from hands or arms when talking
  • Copying sounds made by others
  • Saying up to two recognizable, real words like "Hi" or "Mama"
  • Copying facial expressions of others

How to Handle Concerns

The University of Michigan Medicine School suggests there is no concrete way to tell if an infant has an issue with language development. Some children simply develop later than others. They advise parents to take cues from developmental milestones, discuss concerns with a pediatrician, and get help early. According to NIDCD delays can also be caused by more serious problems like hearing loss or a speech/language disorder. Even if it turns out your child doesn't have a larger medical issue, the extra professional help with language development won't be harmful.

Tips to Encourage Development

twin baby daughters

Isa Marrs suggests you "Talk, talk, and talk to them some more. They don't need mechanical toys or television; they need you. Children learn language through modeling those around them. The more you speak to them the better." In addition, PBS Parents and the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute say parents and caregivers can encourage language development in several ways.

Parent Actions

  • Teach children to imitate sounds like clapping.
  • When your baby makes sounds, repeat the sounds back.
  • Show joy when your child uses vocalizations.
  • Use eye contact, physical touch and an upbeat voice when talking with your baby.
  • Describe everything you are doing; narrate your day.
  • Use the language you are most comfortable with.
  • Use complex grammar and rich vocabulary.
  • Pay attention to your child's specific interests and engage in play or activities related to those things.

Interactive Activities

  • Sing songs fun, interactive songs that include hand movements, specific sounds and repetition are best.
  • Read together - take care to point out pictures as you say corresponding words.
  • Play hand games to teach words, like "The Itsy Bitsy Spider."
  • Repetition - read the same book or sing the same songs multiple times.

An Interactive Process

Learning about voice, speech, hearing and language is an interactive process for infants. They are dependent on caregivers to help them understand the world and self-expression. Help your baby acquire important language skills with regular interactions and conversations.

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Understanding and Encouraging Infant Language Development