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Speech development in children

Language development varies considerably between children, even within the same family. However, they tend to follow a natural progression for mastering the skills of language and there are certain ‘milestones’ that can be identified as a rough guide to normal development.

How does speech develop over time?

Babies need to learn how language sounds before being able to learn how to speak.

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

  • From 1-3 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 6-9 months, babies babble in syllables and start imitating tones and speech sounds.
  • Between 12 months, a baby's first words usually appear, and by 18 months to 2 years children use around 50 words.
  • Between 2-3 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.
  • Between 3-5 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.

How can parents help?

You can encourage your baby to start talking by:

  • making faces and noises and talking about your activities from the day they’re born
  • playing interactive games like peek-a-boo and singing nursery rhymes
  • looking at 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 a word or so longer than the sentences they use themselves
  • avoiding testing, such as asking 'What's this?', as children learn better without pressure
  • not criticising wrong words and instead saying the word properly – for example, if your baby points to a cat and says ‘Ca!’ say: ‘Yes, it’s a cat’
  • letting your child lead the conversation and help them expand on their thoughts
  • giving your child lots of opportunities to talk, with plenty of time to answer your questions
  • reducing background noise such as TV, and limiting supervised TV watching for older children.

Consult 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 has not started combining words.

Last reviewed: April 2017

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