Photo: Stocksy United
Many moms report that their baby’s first word was “mama”—and Yvonne Edwards is one of them. Although, in her case, she recalls, “it was more like ‘mum-mum,’” which her baby, Bronwen, called from the crib at about six months old.
“Mama,” along with “papa,” “dada” and “baba,” are typical first words of babies the world over, says Sharon Weisz, a Toronto-based speech language pathologist. But that’s not because babies are recognizing or naming their parents. It’s because those sounds are the easiest for babies to make. The m, p and b sounds—soon followed by d and g—are the first to form, and usually start as babbles between six and nine months, says Weisz. So it’s no coincidence that nearly every language has invented parental words to suit the abilities of babies. “In most languages, the words for ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ use those early sounds, the lip sounds,” says Weisz, who is the director of Toronto Speech Therapy.
Although repetitious consonant-vowel words like “mama” and “dada” are most often seized upon by parents as baby’s first words, the initial speech sounds babies make are typically vowels that come months earlier, says Roxane Bélanger, a speech language pathologist at First Words, a preschool speech and language program in Ottawa.
At two or three months old, babies start cooing and blowing raspberries, and then progress to vowel sounds like “ah-ah” or “oooh.” By 10 months, they should typically be able to manage the repeated babbling of the “mama” and “dada” variety.
“Those are the early sounds, and people will interpret them as the words ‘mom’ and ‘dad,’” says Bélanger. “But the true first words happen when babies make the link between the sound they make and the person or object.”
For Weisz’s own four sons, that meant the next words after “mama” included “ball,” “more” and “car”—all words that were meaningful and helpful for a baby who wants a certain toy to play with, more to eat, or to engage with the world around them. Edwards’ baby Bronwen followed “mum-mum” with “uh-oh” and “god-ghee” (doggie). Weisz and other speech language experts say babies’ first few words are generally going to mirror what they are most interested in—and what words they are exposed to. So if parents want baby to be able to ask for “more” or “milk,” they have to repeat the words when the situation presents itself.
While most babies should be saying three to five words by their first birthday, says Bélanger, no one is expecting perfect pronunciation.
“They might say ‘ba’ for ball when they see dad picking up the ball,” she says. “Or when they are hungry and see a bottle, they might say ‘ba’ for bottle.” As long as your baby uses the word consistently, it counts. In this case, “ba” is actually considered two words, since it’s the clear connection of a sound to an object, not just the sound alone.
“They don’t usually say the ending sound at first,” Weisz adds.
While some bilingual families worry their use of multiple languages will slow their baby’s speech development, studies have consistently shown there is nothing to be concerned about, says Bélanger. In fact, the pros far outweigh any cons.
“Children won’t be confused if we introduce two or more languages early on,” she says. “In fact, it’s best to introduce two languages from birth. Children are born international—they are able to make sense and discriminate all the sounds that make up all the languages.” Babies who learn two languages at once may take longer to start talking, but they end up with the same number of words—in their combined languages—at major milestones.
Often, children learn one language from one parent and a second from the other, and they quickly understand who speaks which language. Similarly, many learn English at daycare and another language at home, and have no trouble matching each setting with the right language, Bélanger says.
Whether baby is growing up with one language or many, parents should only be concerned if their child isn’t experimenting with consonant and vowel sounds by six to nine months. If this is the case, consider a hearing test. The newborn screening only determines whether a baby can hear at all, not how well, Weisz says.
If your baby just isn’t super chatty, there are other learning cues that can reassure you that your child is still developing normally, including responding to their name, pointing to objects and then looking back at you, stacking blocks, opening a book, and rolling a ball back and forth.
Weisz says it’s important to look at the big picture. “Some kids may be later with their first words,” she says, “but they’re still understanding everything.”