Childhood Speech Development

Good childhood speech development is crucial to all other aspects of a child's existence.

Babies are born unable to speak, yet within three short years they are speaking in sentences of several words. Good speech development is crucial to all other aspects of a child's existence.

A child must, of course, hear speech to develop speech. Babies are tested for potential hearing problems at various stages during their development. As a general rule, if at any stage you think your baby may have a hearing problem, contact your health professional immediately.

In the earliest months a baby communicates by means of crying. At first all babies' cries sound alike, but parents usually learn to differentiate quite quickly between the cries that signify hunger, pain, discomfort, tiredness and overstimulation. Our automatic response is to try to identify the cause of the cry, and perform whatever action seems necessary. The baby is already learning the give and take of communication - he expresses his wishes verbally, and his caregivers respond to them appropriately. It is impossible to keep one's face without expression when responding to a baby, and they very rapidly pick up on our facial expressions, and experiment with their own. Babies are great imitators - literally within moments of birth a baby will stick out its tongue at you, if you stick your tongue out at the baby.

Around 4-6 months, babies will begin to babble. This tuneful 'ga ga goo goo' pattern can be enormously expressive. Before long the babbling with start to take on the intonations of adult conversation, and from a distance it will sound as though the baby is having a meaningful conversation with herself.

Between 6 and 9 months babies will start to communicate more via gestures, for instance lifting their arms up when they want you to pick them up. Some recognisable syllables will appear in the babbling, which will be almost constant now. Most babies will react to familiar words such as their name, 'Dad', 'Mum' and possibly familiar sounds like the ping of the microwave!

9-12 months sees the much-awaited first word. It is usually 'Dadda', much to the disgust of the main caregiver! 'Da' is just an easier sound to make than 'Ma'. 'Mama' usually follows pretty soon. There is still constant babbling, and if you listen carefully you will hear more and more realistic syllables appearing in the tuneful flow of sound.



More words will appear between 12-15 months, but the main form of communication will still be babbling. Many babies sound as though they are speaking a foreign language at this point - Welsh, perhaps, or Polish. Babies understand pretty much everything that is said to them by this stage and are usually capable of following simple instructions. They understand the meaning of the word 'No' but are just reaching the age where they choose not to obey it!

Many babies have health checks around 18 months. The rule of thumb is that their vocabulary should include about 6 or 8 words, though many have up to 25 in their repertoire and use them constantly! At this stage it is not necessary that a word be a proper adult word, so long as it is used consistently for the same thing. I.e. 'gog' for 'dog' is quite common at this age, and so long as the child always says 'gog' when she sees a dog, that is consistent usage of the word. Babies have their sight and hearing checked thoroughly at this stage, too, as a child who has fewer than 6 words may well have a hearing problem.

By the second birthday, the child's speech will have really taken off. 30, 40, 50, 60 or even 70 words are being used regularly and appropriately, with some two-word sentences appearing. He will be anxious to tell you about everything that is happening around him, and will make words up if the correct one does not spring to mind. Two year olds are fascinated by the world around them and want nothing better than a receptive listener while they chatter away. This is the stage where you rather wish they had not learned to talk quite so well!

Between the ages of 2 and 3 many things happen to a child's speech. Their vocabulary becomes too vast to count, maybe as many as 800 words by the third birthday. Sentences are being used increasingly often, and increasing in length. An 8 word sentence may be expected around the third birthday, usually along the lines of 'I want a *** and a ***, now!' Grammar is making an appearance, with frequent use of possessives, plurals, and grammar picked up from the people she hears the most. Grammar is often quite correct at this age, and goes downhill again later when they start to learn some of the rules - they apply the rules incorrectly when they are first learned, but this is nothing to worry about, it merely part of the learning process. Plurals of irregular verbs are almost invariably incorrect at this age - 'sheeps', for instance. Baby terms for some objects may remain in use, especially as parents usually think this is very cute and reminds them of the recent past.

A newborn baby can only cry to convey her needs. A three-year-old will engage you in a detailed conversation, and will never stop asking questions. A lot of ground has been covered in those three years.

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