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Speech Development in the Infant and Toddler

by Debbie Reese; June 1998



NPIN Parent News


Milestones in Speech Development

How Parents Can Help



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As children grow from infancy to toddlerhood, early childhood, and so on, parents are often keenly aware of what their child "should" be doing at any given age. One of the milestones that frequently causes parents great anxiety is the development of speech. Those initial babblings that sound like words are celebrated, but later, some parents wonder if their child’s ability to talk is delayed. This article outlines important aspects of speech development.

Before entering into a discussion about milestones of speech development, it is important to note the following:

  • There is great variation in the onset of expressive language. Children generally understand far more (this is their "receptive speech") than they are able to articulate themselves ("expressive language").

  • Girls seem to develop the ability to communicate earlier than boys.

  • Language can develop smoothly and continuously, or in jumps and spurts.

  • Because the development of speech varies, it is important not to compare your child’s language development to other children’s language development.

  • If you suspect your child is having a delay in either receptive or expressive language, discuss your concerns with your family physician or pediatrician. He/she may evaluate the child, or refer you to professionals who specialize in speech and language evaluation.

Milestones in Speech Development

At 7 days of age, an infant can distinguish her mother’s voice from another woman’s voice.

At 2 weeks of age, an infant can distinguish her father’s voice from another man’s voice.

At 3 months, an infant can make vowel sounds.

At 6 to 8 months, the infant has added a few consonant sounds to the vowel sounds, and may say "dada" or "mama," but does not yet attach them to individuals.

At a year, the infant will attach "mama" or "dada" to the right person. The infant can respond to one-step commands ("Give it to me.")

At 15 months, the infant continues to string vowel and consonant sounds together (gibberish) but may imbed real words within the gibberish. The infant may be able to say as many as ten different words.

At 18 months, a toddler can say nouns (ball, cup), names of special people, and a few action words/phrases. The infant adds gestures to her speech, and may be able to follow a two-step command ("Go to the bedroom and get the toy.")

At 2 years of age, the child can combine words, forming simple sentences like "Daddy go."

At 3 years of age, the child can use sentences two- to four-words long, follow simple instructions, and often repeat words he/she overhears in conversations.

At 4 years of age, the child can understand most sentences, understands physical relationships (on, in, under), uses sentences that are four- or five-words long, can say his/her name, age, and sex, and uses pronouns. Strangers can understand the child’s spoken language.

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How Parents Can Help

Parents can help their children develop language skills by doing the following:

  • Read books and sing songs to your child on a daily basis, beginning in infancy.

  • Introduce new vocabulary in a meaningful context, e.g., name specific foods at dinnertime.

  • Speak directly to your child, and give him/her time to respond.

  • Avoid finishing sentences for the child.

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Brazelton, T. Berry. (1992). Touchpoints. Your child’s emotional and behavioral development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Shelov, Steven P. (1994). The American Academy of Pediatrics: Caring for your baby and young child.New York: Bantam Books.

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Published monthly by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Children's Research Center, 51 Gerty Drive, Champaign, IL 61820-7469. This publication was funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. DERR93002007. Opinions expressed in this magazine do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Department of Education.

NPIN Coordinator and Parent News Editor: Anne Robertson
Production Editor: Emily S. Van Hyning

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