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Practice Makes Perfect as Your Child Learns to Talk

Every parent has questions about his or her child's speech and language development. "When is she expected to say sounds? Words? Sentences?" "When should he understand me?" "Should we speak more than one language in our home? 
And questions about speech and language development will continue well into the time your child reaches adulthood.
It's important for parents to understand typical speech and language development so they can identify any early warning signs that their child may be missing developmental milestones and could need some extra assistance.
Sure, there's a large range in what is considered appropriate among the many markers children will meet. Learning to talk and uttering her first recognizable word is an important one that new parents will want to gauge against prescribed expectations. Delays could signal hearing problems or health issues that need to be addressed as quickly as possible. 
Babies begin learning speech even while in utero. At birth, they're already familiar with the sounds of their parents' native language.  Yes, talking to your baby in utero starts the process of his speech formation -- he's listening. And keep talking once he's born. He's listening even more.
While some babies say their first word as early as 9 months, and others wait until 14 or 15 months, much is happening as your baby preps for this moment. Your baby is participating in the system of spoken language even though he's not officially talking yet.
From four to six months, your baby will start to discover her voice. You'll hear loud cooing, soft cooing, medium cooing, and all sorts of extremes in loudness and pitch. Then from six to nine months your baby will learn a new, big, important skill: babbling. If your baby isn't babbling by eight months, it may be time to talk to her pediatrician about what’s going on.
From ten to twelve months of age, your baby should be putting together consonant-vowel combinations that have all the intonations of your speech. But these sounds don't actually mean anything -- yet. Then, around age one, babies start to say their first words. Notice that we sayaround age one. Don't worry if your baby's first birthday comes and goes and he doesn't have a word yet. Do worry, though, if at age one your baby doesn't yet respond to his name.
Over the next six months, babies gradually add more and more words to their vocabularies, initially preferring words with the same sound ("ba, da, ma"). Most children experience a word spurt from 18 to 24 months, adding new words to their repertoire each week. They start to try new sounds, such as f, w, and h. Around the time of this word spurt, she'll begin forming rudimentary first sentences. Toddlers are known to lop off a consonant from a blend of consonants, so blue becomes butruck becomes tuck. By ages 3 to 4, children can generally speak in full sentences and are continually practicing and improving their speech sounds. Trouble with r, s and l sounds, and sh, th and ch, is common.
If, by age 3, most people can't understand about half of what your child says, you might want to consider checking in with a speech language therapist. If a child is having difficulty with many speech sounds, he may have difficulty learning the letters and speech sounds needed for literacy development because phonics, or letter-sound correspondence, is an essential building block of learning to read.
As parents, you have an important role to play alongside your child's emerging language skills.

1. Use "parentese." The singsong way that we talk to babies and young children, in a slow, simplified manner with big changes in intonation, help them find the important words in our speech, bringing them to the baby's attention.

2. Respond to your baby's sounds. The more mothers and fathers respond to infant vocalizations, the more infants vocalize. Look him in the eyes when you talk to him.

3. TV doesn't count. Sitting your child in front of TV programs doesn't replace exposing him to the spoken word. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children under age 2.

4. Take away the pacifier. Extended pacifier use and/or thumb-sucking may influence the development and production of certain speech sounds because it affects palate and teeth arrangement.

5. Seek help if talking is delayed. Make sure your child gets the right kind of help if she's not hitting important milestones. Developmental skills build on each other, so it’s important to begin therapy as soon as a delay is detected.

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Dr. Michelle MacRoy-Higgins and Carlyn Kolker are co-authors of the new book, Time to Talk: What You Need to Know About Your Child's Speech and Language Development (Amacom 2017). Dr. MacRoy-Higgins is an associate professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at Hunter College in New York City. She has a BS and MS in speech-language pathology and a PhD in speech-language-hearing sciences. She has her Certificate of Clinical Competence (CCC) from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), is licensed in New York State as a speech-language pathologist, and has worked as a classroom teacher. Dr. Michelle has evaluated and worked with hundreds of children ages 6 months to 10 years with their speech and language issues. Carlyn Kolker is a freelance and former reporter for Bloomberg News and Reuters who is raising two boys. Learn more at
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