Baby Development: When Do Babies Start Talking?

We look at what parents can typically expect when kids start to talk, and discuss some of the common speech problems affecting children.

Learning to speak is an important part of a child’s development, with the most intensive parts of speech and language development occurring in the first three years of life. Some children will experience speech difficulties, however, which is where a speech pathologist may be able to help.
Children usually say their first word at around one year of age, put two or three words together around age two, and begin to form simple sentences by the time they are about two and a half.

Language Milestones

According to Speech Pathology Australia, typical language milestones are as follows:

Babies: 0–1 year

During their first year, children develop the ability to hear and recognise the sounds of their parents’ language. They experiment with sounds by babbling and, over time, their babbling begins to sound more and more like real words. 

Parents can help by talking to their infants and responding to their attempts to communicate, such as by copying their babbling.

Toddlers: 1–3 years

Toddlers experience a huge development in speech sounds and triple the number of words they can say between one and two years of age. As a result, their speech becomes easier to understand. By two years, about half of their speech should be understood; by three years, family and friends should understand most of the child's speech.

Young boy on the phone

If your child is not meeting speech milestones

Parents can help their toddler’s speech development by modelling the correct way of saying words, particularly when children make occasional sound errors. However, if a toddler’s speech is very difficult for parents to understand, or if children are using gestures or grunts in place of words, parents should contact their doctor or a speech pathologist for advice.
 
A speech pathologist has been professionally trained to advise, diagnose and work with adults and children who have difficulty in communicating. Speech pathologists work in a variety of settings, including schools, health centres, hospitals and private practice. Your child health nurse or GP can put you in contact with a speech pathologist.

Common speech problems

The most common speech issues that speech pathologists work with are:
  • Speech sound difficulties, such as a lisp or difficulties making certain sounds (e.g. saying ‘k’ as ‘t’, so ‘cat’ is ‘tat’).
  • Difficulties with certain word structures (eg leaving the last sound off words so ‘cat’ is ‘ca’) – most of these are normal up until a certain age, after which speech therapy can help.
  • Receptive language – difficulties with comprehension, following instructions, the recognition of words and sentences, the understanding of concepts, the ability to follow directions, answer a question or understand chunks of information.
  • Expressive language – limited vocabulary, difficulties putting words together to make complex sentences, difficulties with using correct grammar, difficulties expressing ideas and thoughts.
  • Social skills – including difficulties with developing play and conversation skills, and relating to peers; these may be symptoms of autism.
  • Literacy – difficulty processing the sounds in words in order to be able to read and spell them.

Things parents and guardians should know

The earlier a child gets help for speech difficulties the better, as young children make greater gains more quickly. It’s best to address issues as soon as you begin to notice them – especially stuttering, limited talking/understanding and literacy – even at kindergarten age. Older children tend to have difficulties that are more practised and ingrained, which can make their habits more difficult to change.
 
If left unaddressed, small difficulties with communication can lead to a range of much more complex issues. For example, problems with speech sounds in toddlers can lead to issues communicating with peers, and result in decreased social skills, social isolation and even anxiety. Early intervention is the key to preventing or reducing long-term consequences.

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