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Speech Development in the First Year

Fiona Marshall, Child Development Specialist

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My 5 month old seems to be not verbalizing as much as she did last month, or even at 3 months. She is not making a lot of different sounds, or trying to mimic my words. I am concerned about this. She seems to be a little on the serious side, and maybe it's just her personality. Her hearing and vision seem excellent and she is reaching many of her motor skill milestones, like shaking a rattle and grasping at her toes. Any feedback would be appreciated. Thanks.

I can see why you would be concerned about your daughter's speech. Here is a month by month break down of your baby's speech development during the first year:

  • Two months - baby coos, makes some vowel sounds.
  • Three months - gurgles and makes more vowel sounds
  • Four months - experiments with different sounds and makes some consonants
  • Five months - imitates sounds
  • Six months - babbles, using first single and then double syllables, combines vowels and consonants and talks to herself in a singsong.
  • Seven to nine months - babbling rises and falls and sounds more like real conversation; baby imitates adult noises like a shout or cough, shouts to get attention
  • Ten months - imitates pitch and may say one recognizable word
  • Eleven months - echoes what is said to her ('echolalia')
  • One year - babbles continuously like conversation, uses most vowels and many consonants, imitates words and sounds.

As you can see, at five months your baby may try and imitate some of your sounds - actually imitating words doesn't come until 12 months or later. Also, your baby's imitation obviously won't be exact, and sometimes it may be hard for you to pick up that she's imitating you at all. At this stage, she won't be making a lot of very different sounds anyway, because control of muscles in the tongue are still immature. Apart from natural ebbs and flows in the rhythm of development, there are various other reasons why your baby doesn't seem to be vocalizing as much as before:

  • She could be focussing on some other aspect of her development, such as learning to use her hands.
  • She could be too busy looking around at the world, especially if her back is now stronger and you're able to sit her up supported, so she sees more.
  • As you've suggested, her temperament may not be that chatty!

Does she seem to understand emotion in your voice when you speak? For example, if you laugh at something, or maybe scold another child or a pet, does she react? At this stage, babies don't understand different words (this happens around nine months) though in the next month or so she may start understanding her own name, for example turning around when you call her. The point is that understanding of language always comes before language production, so as long as she seems to be taking in the general emotional tone of speech around her, you probably don't need to worry.

There are various things you can do to encourage speech. Chat to her about what you're doing, recite nursery rhymes, sing to her, name objects in books and when out for a walk. Give her time to reply in these 'conversations' (20-30 seconds) as her central nervous system is still immature. Reading to her is also good even now, though her attention span may not be longer than a few minutes.

Bear in mind that all babies are individuals, and develop at individual rates, so this is not an individual diagnosis, just a few suggestions. If you do still have concerns, please check them out with your family doctor or pediatrician or other health care provider, though it sounds to me as though your baby is doing just fine!

Fiona Marshall, baby development expert, is author of several books including "101 Questions about Your Baby's Development" and contributes regularly to the parenting and health press.

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