Developing first words

Babies usually begin to use a few simple words at around their first birthday. Most children at around their first birthday can say mum, dad and a couple of other words. New words continue to develop so that by two years of age most children are using between 150 and 300 words and combining words into simple phrases such as “bye mum” ”wanna drink” “where’s daddy” and “my ball”.

Here are some ideas for helping them develop these vital early skills.

Model words for your child whenever you do things together. There are a couple of key things to remember when helping your child to learn their first 100 words.

1. Keep your model short, just one word is ideal in the beginning so your child can copy you. So instead of saying, “Oh look there’s Nanna’s cat” shorten it right down to “Cat!”

2. Use lots of repetition, just saying it once or twice is not going to be enough. Try to say the word 10-15 times.

3. Make it lots of fun by using lots of different activities around themes. Common animals are a good starting place. Use toys, books, puzzles, TV programs and any other ideas you may have with the same vocabulary.

4. Imitate sounds made by objects and encourage your child to do so too. Talk about animal noises also eg: “Cow, it goes moo”. Try to use speech sounds when you make the noise of different objects and animals, e.g. a pig goes oink, oink, (not grunts).

5. Emphasise short one syllable words, particularly with b, p, m. t, d, n sounds as these are easiest for a young child. Simple farm animals and the sounds they make are ideal.

Have fun while you:

  • Name pictures in simple picture books.
  • Play games with objects as you name them. Hide them under a tea towel, in a pillow case or behind your back and “find” them.
  • Play lotto, memory, posting and fish with clear and attractive picture cards

When children have developed a set of single words they begin to combine these together to express new more specific meanings such as “bye Dad”, “Mum car” and “more drink”. In typically developing children this begins at around 18 months and is well established by 2 years. It usually starts when the child has mastered around 50 single words.

Try these strategies and activities to help your child combine words:

1. Build a solid base of single words. Children usually need around 50 single words before they begin this stage. Even after they begin to use two words they will need to continue to learn more single words to continue to develop their language skills.

2. Develop a variety of word types. Children begin by learning lots of names of people and things. To develop two word combinations they often need to combine these nouns with a different type of word such as an action word or a descriptive word. Action words are particularly important as they form the basis of sentences later on.

Help your child learn a range of different words including:action words (run,eat sleep), describing words (big, funny, sad), position words (in, under), possessive words: (mine, yours), greeting words (hi, bye), functional words (more, gone, no).

3. Expand the single words your child does say by adding another word. Try to repeat it a couple of times if you can. e.g. Child “bye” Adult “bye Dad, Dad’s going shopping, bye Dad”. Your child does not need to copy you, just hearing what you say will help and they will use that phrase when they are ready.

4. Practice games and activities where you can repeat the same word or two words over and over a number of times.

Activities could include.

• Bathtime: wash + body part “wash face, wash arms, wash tummy”

• Mealtime: eat + food name “eat peas, eat carrots, eat meat”

• Dressing: clothing name + on “shirt on, pants on, socks on, hat on”

• Ball play: action + ball “roll ball, push ball, kick ball, catch ball”

• Car play: car + action/position “ car go, car stop, car up, car in, car down”

• Block play ”build up, more blocks, fall down”

• Outside play “Alex + run/jump/climb/slide” “Alex under/over/in/out/through”

• Hiding dolls or animals and finding them “hello teddy, goodbye puppy”.

• Matching games “Two apples, more dog”

When should a parent be concerned?

Two year olds who have less than 50 words and are not combining two words together into simple phrases are at a significant risk of going on to develop speech and language difficulties. These difficulties can have an impact on the development of learning and literacy later on. Early speech and language intervention can have a positive effect on a child’s skills. Therapy with two year olds involves play based activities and teaching parents strategies to help their child’s skills develop.

It is recommended that you have an assessment with a qualified speech pathologist to determine what support is best for your child. It is also recommended that your child have a hearing test.

What about dummies and bottles?

Recent research carried out by the University of Washington suggests that using a bottle or dummy (pacifier) for too long can increase the chances of children developing speech disorders. A research team looked at links between sucking behaviours and speech disorders in 128 three to five year olds in Chile. They found children who did not use a bottle until after nine months of age had less speech disorders while children who used dummies or sucked their fingers after age three were three times more likely to have a speech disorder.

Child and Youth Health suggest most children should give up using dummies at around 2 years of age at least in the day time. They suggest that cups be introduced in place of bottles from 12 months. For more information about dummies and bottles see the child and youth health website

If you are concerned about your child's communication development browse our website for more information about how speech pathology can help.

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