Did You Say Something? Understanding A Baby’s First Words

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Baby girl talking with momOne of the most exciting changes in language development is when babies start using words to communicate. I have to admit; I too experienced the anticipation as my children approached word use age. I couldn’t wait to hear their little voices and find out what they were going to say as their first words!

In my profession as a speech-language pathologist, I speak to many parents of young infants. When I ask at what age they should expect their baby’s first words many are unsure. In addition, I have been asked by almost every first time parent “what do you mean by first-word”. Since this type of information is common knowledge to me because of my education and training, I sometimes forget that it may not be to the general population, which is a concern for me as a clinician.

It is very important that parents have a basic understanding of their child’s speech and language development for two reasons. First, if parents aren’t aware of the age at which their children are suppose to be hitting their speech and language milestones, they won’t be aware if their children have missed a milestone and how late they actually are. Second, if parents don’t know what to expect their children to do at each speech and language milestone they are less likely to be able to help them along. For example, babies will take first steps when they are developmentally ready, but when you know what to look for (e.g., pulling themselves to standing, cruising) you can be there to help them along. The same is true for first words.

With this post I would like to set the record straight about what a first word is and when to expect it in typical language development.

What is a first word?

Since babies are pretty noisy, typically using lots of different sounds before words begin, it may be hard to tell when they use an actual true word. To be considered a true word there are four things that need to happen:

  • The word should contain a vowel similar to what would be expected in the adult production of the word (e.g., ‘mama’ has a similar vowel sound as in ‘mom’ or ‘mommy’)
  • It should be a single production of sounds to distinguish it from babbling or jargon (e.g., ‘mama’ followed by a pause, instead of ‘mamamamama’)
  • The word is used in the same way repeatedly (e.g., ‘mama’ is used to always refer to mom and not the dog, cars and toys as well)
  • The word is used in a communicative way to intentionally send a message to another person (e.g., ‘mama’ is used when talking to or referring to mom)

Here are some examples of what first words might sound like:

  • ‘ka’ for ‘car’
  • ‘uh’ for ‘up’
  • ‘baba’ for ‘bubbles’
  • ‘tee’ for ‘tree’
  • ‘doo’ for ‘juice’
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Lynn is a speech-language pathologist and the founder of Talking Together. She has received a master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Western University and has achieved clinical certification from Speech-Language and Audiology Canada.

Lynn also has additional certification as a Hanen Centre It Takes Two to Talk instructor, as well as training in applied behaviour analysis (ABA), picture exchange communication system (PECS), augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and American Sign Language (ASL).

Her research has been published in the journal of Memory and Cognition and the Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology.

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