How your child communicates and talks

Talking and communicating

Babies will start learning about language and how to communicate as soon as they are born. From the moment your baby is born, they will want to communicate with you through eye contact, facial expressions and body movements. Over time they start to connect noises and words to actions or things as they develop an understanding of language.

At around four months they will start to gurgle and coo. At six months or so your baby will be making a number of different sounds and at nine months these sounds will start to become more complex.
You can do lots to encourage your child’s communication skills: The more parents talk to their children, the better their language skills are likely to develop. 

The I Can website has more information about stages of speech and language development at different ages.

What is your baby learning?

By 4 to 6 months, babies learn to:

  • recognise their own name
  • show emotions like excitement, likes and dislikes
  • start babbling

How can you help your baby?

  • Hold your baby close and look at them as you talk to them. Babies love faces and will watch you and respond as you talk
  • Chat about what you're doing as you feed, change and bathe them
  • Sing to your baby – this helps them tune in to the rhythm of language
  • Repeat the sounds your baby makes back to them – this teaches your baby lessons about listening and taking turns in a conversation
  • Talk in a sing-song voice – this helps to keep your baby's attention

What is your baby learning?

Between 6 to 12 months, babies learn to:

  • respond when people chat to them
  • make repetitive babbling sounds, like “ab-ab-ab”
  • understand a small number of words like “no” and “bye bye”
  • say their first words
  • use gestures like pointing to show you things

How can you help your baby?

  • Name and point to things you can both see, for example, "Look, a cat". This will help your baby learn words and, in time, they'll start to copy you. As your baby gets older, add more detail, such as, "Look, a black cat"
  • Start looking at books with your baby – you do not have to read the words on the page, just talk about what you can see
  • Only offer a dummy when it's time for sleep. It's hard to learn to talk with a dummy in your mouth. Aim to stop using dummies completely by 12 months
  • Play games like "peek-a-boo" and "round and round the garden". This teaches your baby important skills like taking turns, paying attention and listening

What is your child learning?

Between 12 to 18 months, children learn to:

  • Speak 5-20 words although these may not be clear
  • Use some pretend noises e.g. brrm for car
  • Repeat a word or phrase over and over (echolalia)
  • Babble or use nonsense words
  • Follow simple commands
  • Understand some single words
  • Respond to questions such as "where’s mummy"/"where’s your nose?"
  • Chew and swallow a range of different textured foods without choking

How can you help your child?

  • If your child is trying to say a word but gets it wrong, say the word properly. For example, if they point to a cat and say "Ca!" you should respond with, "Yes, it's a cat". Do not criticise or tell them off for getting the word wrong.
  • Increase your child's vocabulary by giving them choices, such as, "Do you want an apple or a banana?".
  • Toys and books that make a noise will help your child's listening skills.
  • Enjoy singing nursery rhymes and songs together as your baby grows, especially those with actions, such as "Pat-a-cake", "Row, row, row your boat" and "Wind the bobbin up". Doing the actions helps your child to remember the words

What is your child learning?

Between 18 to 24 months, children learn to:

  • Recognise and point to body parts
  • Understand single words e.g. ‘find car’ and some action words e.g ‘sleep’, ‘jump’
  • Understanding of two words developing e.g.” show me dolly’s nose”
  • Start to use two word combinations e.g. ‘more juice’, ‘Mummy car’
  • Start to ask questions e.g ‘where drink?’
  • Use approximately 20-50 words

How can you help your child?

  • Repeat words, for example, "Where are your shoes?", "Are you wearing blue shoes today?" and "Let's put your shoes on". Repetition helps your child to remember words.
  • Use simple instructions – your child will understand some instructions at this age, such as "Get your coat" or '"Shut the door". Keeping instructions short and simple will help your child understand.
  • Try asking "Where's your..." – ask your child to point to their ear, nose, foot, and so on.
  • Limit your child's daily TV time to no more than 30 minutes for children younger than 24 months. Playing and listening to stories is more helpful when they're learning to talk.

What is your child learning?

Between 2 to 3 years, children learn to:

  • Understand “you” and “I” and concepts of size  big/little or location  under/in/on
  • Know what objects are for
  • Learn to use lots of new words (150-300)
  • Put words together into short phrases
  • Start to use “I” “Me” “You” correctly
  • Using consistently two word combinations e.g. ‘more juice’
  • Asks lots of questions
  • Still make mistakes with grammar
  • Understand three word sentences easily “put your shoes under your bed”
  • Begins to understand the names of colours
  • To talk about what they have done in their day
  • Use more describing words in their language e.g. cold/hot/dirty

How can you help your child?

  • Help them build sentences – your child will start to put simple sentences together at around age 2. Try to reply using sentences that are a few words longer. For example, if they say, "sock off", respond with "yes, we're taking your sock off".
  • Get your child's attention by saying their name at the start of a sentence. If you ask a question, give them plenty of time to answer you.
  • Teach them about words that go together – for example, you could show them a ball, teddy and a rattle and then say the word ‘toy’.
  • Start using sounds with meaning (symbolic sounds), like saying "whoops" or "uh-oh" when you drop something accidentally, or saying "meow" while showing them a picture of a cat.
  • Switch off the television and radio – background noise makes it harder for your child to listen to you.
  • Talk as you clean – children this age love to help. Chat about what you're doing as you do chores like shopping, cooking and cleaning together.

Lots of children grow up in a family where more than one language is spoken. This can be an advantage to children in their learning. The important thing is to talk to your child in whatever language feels comfortable to you. This may mean that one parent uses one language, while the other uses a different language. Children adapt to this very well.

Advice for parents/carers of bilingual children

Information is available below that has been translated into different languages:

National Literacy Trust - Multilingual families

National Literacy Trust - Early Years Bilingual Quick Tips

Anyone concerned about a child's language and/or communication development can use the appropriate questions on this development tool to see if a referral is needed.

The I Can website has answers to common questions about speech and language assessments and also information about the assessment services it offers.