Communicating with Baby: Tips and Milestones from Birth to Age 5
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By Adena Dacy, MS, CCC-SLP
Babies start to communicate from the day they are born. Before formal schooling ever begins, there are critical periods of rapid development when the brain is best able to acquire speech (sound production) and language (understanding and using words). As young children grow, their communication skills become more complex. They learn to understand and use language to express their thoughts and feelings and to connect with others.
Parents, family members, and caregivers are children’s most important teachers and communication models. But it doesn’t take apps, videos, or other special tools to make the most of this crucial time. Your everyday interactions with your children help build their brains and support their communication development.
Children develop at different rates, but most follow a natural timetable for learning speech and language. Communication milestones are skills that children, on average, are expected to have by a certain age. These milestones build on one another and help us know if a child’s development is on track. It’s important for parents to recognize typical communication milestones so they can support their children’s growth and seek help early on if their children are not meeting them.
Below are general milestones for hearing, listening, speech, language, and cognitive development in children from birth to age 5. Keep in mind that development varies and an individual child may develop more quickly in one area than in another. Your child might not have all the skills listed until the end of the age range.
Here are some communication milestones typically expected by 3 months of age:
Hearing & Understanding
- Startles at loud sounds
- Quiets or smiles when you talk
- Seems to recognize your voice and quiets when crying
- Makes cooing sounds
- Smiles at people
- Has different cries for different needs
As you can see, communication occurs long before children speak their first words (which usually happens around 12 months). Skills continue to develop from 4 to 6 months, 7 to 12 months, 1 to 2 years, 2 to 3 years, 3 to 4 years, 4 to 5 years, and beyond.
If at any stage you notice your child isn’t meeting these milestones, have a discussion with your pediatrician, who may recommend seeking help from a certified audiologist (for hearing) or speech/language pathologist (for speech and language). A searchable database of these professionals is available at www.asha.org/profind. Note that through Early Intervention Programs in the United States, free or low-cost help is often available for infants and toddlers.
Sometimes friends, neighbors, or other professionals may tell parents that they should “wait and see” if their child’s communication problems go away. While it’s true that some children are late bloomers, seeking evaluation sooner rather than later is important if you or your doctor notice any delays in your child's development. It’s more effective to treat communication problems early. More information is available here.
Tips for parents and families
What can you do to help your child? Here are some tips:
- TALK, talk, and then talk some more. During your daily activities, talk about what you and your child are doing. Ask and answer questions. Your child will learn to associate the words you say with the people, actions, objects, and feelings you describe.
- ENCOURAGE your budding communicator. Listen and respond to your child’s sounds and words, including cooing and babbling. Imitate her sounds or words and add to them. Introduce vocabulary words during new routines and outings. You’re teaching back-and-forth conversation skills.
- READ every day, starting from birth. Choose books with rhymes, bright colors, different textures, and photos. Read with expression, and point to words as you say them; point out real versions of pictures from the books your read as you see them in everyday settings ( traffic signs, store logos). Create daily routines that incorporate reading, such as at bedtime or mealtimes.
- SING songs and recite nursery rhymes. Vary the pitch and volume of your voice.
- MODEL good speech. Speak clearly and naturally, and use correct speech sounds.
- DESCRIBE objects that have different sizes, colors, and textures. Use comparison words such as hard and soft.
- PLAY games that help your child follow directions, such as Simon Says. Encourage pretend play: pretend to talk on a toy phone, or have a “picnic.” Build on the conversation (this is appropriate for older toddlers).
- ASK why questions, such as “Why do we need to eat breakfast?” And be ready to answer them, too (this is appropriate for older toddlers).
Want to learn more? Download the Communicating With Baby toolkit here.
Adena Dacy, MS, CCC-SLP, is associate director, clinical issues in speech-language pathology, at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association