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Language development - birth to 1 year


During the first 3 years of life, the brain is developing and maturing. This is the most intensive period for learning speech and language skills. These skills develop best in a world that is rich with sounds, sights, and lots of exposure to the speech and language of others. Children can develop speech and language skills at slightly different rates; however, they follow a natural timetable for mastering the language skills. See below for a checklist of normal speech and language milestones in infants from birth to 1 year.

From birth to 3 months, your child should be able to do the following:

  • Express emotions and needs through crying
  • Produce different cries for different reasons
  • Maintain brief eye contact during feeding
  • Watch the speaker’s mouth or eyes
  • Show contentment or amusement by smiling and cooing
  • Calm down or smile in response to a voice they know
  • Move or react to loud sounds or voices

At 3 to 6 months, your baby should be able to do the following:

  • Respond to new sounds other than voices (such as vacuum and telephone); turns head toward a voice
  • Respond to changes in tone of voice. (such as “no”)
  • Pay attention to and make vocal sounds in response to music
  • Smile in response to you or when playing alone
  • Gurgle, laugh, and make more speech-like babbling sounds (baba, mama)
  • Whine to get what he wants
  • Begin to take turns “talking” and attempt to interact with adults
  • Begin to recognize his name (turns head or looks up when you say it)
  • Anticipate feeding (gets excited when you shake bottle)

At 6 months to 1 year, your baby should be able to do the following:

  • Listen when spoken to
  • Begin to recognize common words ("cup," "juice," and "bottle") and family members’ names
  • Respond to requests like "come here" and gestures to “come up” or “want up?”
  • Imitate speech sounds
  • Use speech or non-crying sounds to get and keep attention more often
  • Make long and short groups of babbling sounds such as "mama mama"
  • Pay attention to new words and start developing vocabulary
  • Enjoy games like peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake
  • Identify 2 body parts on self
  • Search for hidden objects and begin to use toys correctly (pushes a toy car)
  • Communicate using gestures such as waving in response to “bye-bye” or holding up arms to request to be picked up
  • Display a fear of strangers
  • Say “mama” or “dada” meaningfully
  • Say 1 or 2 words by first birthday ("bye-bye," "hi,” "dada")

What you can do to help

Even at this early age, there is much that you can do to help develop language.

  • Encourage your baby to make vowel-like and consonant-vowel sounds such as "ma," "da," and "ba."
  • Reinforce your baby's attempts to talk by looking at him, speaking, and imitating his sounds. Imitate his laughter and facial expressions.
  • Teach your baby to imitate actions, such as, clapping, blowing kisses, waving, and playing finger games such as pat-a-cake, itsy bitsy spider. These games teach turn taking that is needed for conversation.
  • Talk and read to your child. Sometimes "reading" is simply describing the pictures in a book without following the written words. Choose books that are sturdy and have large colorful pictures that are not too detailed. Ask your child, "What's this?" and encourage naming and pointing to familiar objects in the book. This helps to develop vocabulary.
  • Talk while you are doing things, such as dressing, bathing, and feeding. "Mommy is washing Sam's hair." "Sam is eating carrots." "Oh, these carrots are good!" Talk about where you are going, what you will do once you get there, and who and what you will see. "Sam is going to grandma's house. Grandma has a dog. Sam will pet the dog."
  • Introduce animal sounds: “A cow says moo.”
  • Pay attention to ear problems and infections, especially when they keep occurring. Tell your child’s doctor if you think he has trouble hearing.

Adapted from materials from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association,


If you have questions about language development, call Rehabilitation Services at 901-595-3621. If you are inside the hospital, dial 3621. If you are outside the Memphis area, call toll-free 1-866-2ST-JUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3621.


This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

ATENCIÓN: si habla español, tiene a su disposición servicios gratuitos de asistencia lingüística. Llame al 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).

تنبيه: إذا كنت تتحدث باللغة العربية فيمكنك الاستعانة بخدمات المساعدة اللغوية المتوفرة لك مجانا. .يرجى الاتصال بالرقم. 5833-278-866-1  (الهاتف النصي: 1040-595-901-1).