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Speech development in children

5-minute read

Key facts

  • Children learn to speak at their own pace, and there is a wide range of ‘normal’ speech development.
  • There are certain milestones that can provide a rough guide to normal development.
  • Babies need to learn how language sounds before being able to learn how to speak.
  • There are many different ways you can encourage your child to start talking, and also some things you should try to avoid.
  • If you are worried about your child’s speech development, ask your doctor if your child needs an assessment or hearing test.

What is normal speech development in children?

Language development varies between children, even within the same family. Most children tend to follow a natural progression for mastering the skills of language. There are certain milestones that provide a rough guide to normal development.

How does speech develop over time?

Babies need to learn how language sounds before they can learn how to speak.

Although individual children develop at their own rate, there are some general patterns:

  • From 1 to 3 months of age, babies cry and coo.
  • At 4 to 6 months of age, babies sigh, grunt, gurgle, squeal, laugh and make different crying sounds.
  • Between 6 and 9 months, babies babble in syllables and start imitating tones and speech sounds.
  • By 12 months, a baby's first words usually appear. By 18 months to 2 years children use around 50 words and will start putting two words together into phrases or short sentences.
  • From 2 to 3 years, sentences extend to 4 and 5 words. Children can recognise and identify almost all common objects and pictures, as well as use pronouns (I, me, he, she) and some plurals. Strangers can understand most words.
  • From 3 to 5 years, conversations become longer, and more abstract and complex.
  • By the time a child turns 5, they usually have a 2,500 word vocabulary and talk in complete, grammatically correct sentences. They ask a lot of ‘why?’, ‘what?’ and ‘who?’ questions.

Learn more about your child's language and speech development on Pregnancy, Birth and Baby.

How can parents help with speech development?

You can encourage your baby to start talking by:

  • Making faces and noises and talking about your activities from the day they are born.
  • Playing interactive games like peek-a-boo and singing nursery rhymes.
  • Looking at picture books from an early age — you don’t have to read the words, just talk about what you can see.
  • Talking slowly and clearly and using short, simple sentences — if your child is already talking, try using sentences that are 1 or 2 words longer than the sentences they use themselves. For example, if your baby uses 3 word sentences, talk to them in sentences of 4 or 5 words.
  • Letting your child lead the conversation and helping them expand on their thoughts.
  • Giving your child lots of opportunities to talk, with plenty of time to answer your questions.

There are also things you can try to avoid, in order to help your child’s speech development:

  • Avoid testing your child, for example, by asking 'What's this?', as children learn better without pressure.
  • Don’t criticise your child if they can’t yet pronounce a word. It’s better to repeat the word properly yourself. For example, if your baby points to a cat and says ‘Ca’ say: ‘Yes, it’s a cat’.
  • Reduce background noise such as TV, so that your child can hear and listen to your conversations with other family members.

Why is hearing important for my child’s speech development?

Hearing is important for learning how to say sounds correctly. Hearing loss in babies and toddlers can cause a delay in speech development.

Common causes of reduced hearing in young children include recurrent middle ear infections and a glue ear. These are treatable conditions and if addressed, will not usually cause permanent hearing loss or speech delays.

If your child has frequent middle ear infections or glue ear, your GP or paediatrician should refer you to an ear nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

When should I seek help for my child’s speech development?

See your doctor or child health nurse if:

  • By 12 months, your child is not trying to communicate with you (using sounds, gestures and/or words), particularly when needing help or wanting something.
  • By 2 years, your child isn’t saying around 50 words or hasn’t started combining words into short sentences.

If you are worried about your child’s speech development, see an audiologist to get their hearing checked.

Use the healthdirect Australia Service Finder to find an audiologist or speech pathologist near you.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

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Last reviewed: May 2022

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