How To Support Language Development During Your Child’s First Year

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Children don’t start saying their first words until around twelve months but language development actually begins long before that. While in the womb they are listening to the sounds and voices around them which is when they first start to develop language skills. This enables infants to recognize sound and speech patterns that they hear when born, especially being able to differentiate those of the mother compared to others. This continues once born and begins to lay the foundations of language. Language development consists of three areas; communication, language, and literacy.

Communication is the foundation of language development. Infants are able to communicate their needs through crying, facial expressions, and body language before having any verbal language themselves. For this reason, engaging in face-to-face social interactions with your child is fundamental to the formation of their language development.

Towards the end of their first year you will start to see more expressive language from your child. Their babbling will start to sound more like words forming and you may even hear their first word as early as nine months. During the toddler years you will see huge growth in their language which will then lead to the formation of literacy skills. All of this growth is built upon the foundations developed during their first year.

How Babies Learn Language

Children learn receptive language first which is where they develop the skills to understand language. Signs of these skills forming will include responding to human voices and distinguishing familiar voices from other sounds. Children then build upon receptive language skills to learn expressive language in order to be able to communicate themselves.

Receptive language will often develop at a much faster rate than expressive language. Infants will listen to sounds and watch non-verbal cues such as gestures or images shown which leads to understanding those sounds and non-verbal cues. As expressive language skills build infants will begin to use crying and signaling to interact with adults and express their needs. These skills then lead to mimicking sounds through babbling which leads to speech.

These foundational skills are learned through meaningful interactions with parents and caregivers. By establishing and building a relationship with your child through holding them, eye contact, and physical touch, you can build their social interest which leads to further communication. While engaging in regular day to day activities such as diapering, feeding, and play you can provide interactions that expose your child to language and objects. They learn through experiences and observations so by providing these opportunities infants will begin to make connections.

As their skills develop they will begin to respond to verbal requests and recognize named objects which will expand their vocabulary eventually leading them to speaking or signing their first word.

0-12 Month Milestones for Language Development

When do children start to go through each of these stages? How can you tell if your child’s language development is on track? Firstly all children develop at their own pace and there are many factors that could affect how a child develops.

Secondly, a child’s developmental age which is their age measured by their current state of development, can differ from their chronological age which is their age based on their date of birth. If a child was born premature their chronological age may not line up with the milestone checklist. Their age may need to be adjusted in order to be developmentally accurate. Please contact us for more information if you think your child’s developmental age may need to be adjusted.

We have provided a language development milestone checklist for an infants first year. This is based off of when the average number of children reach these milestones as a result not all children will follow this checklist exactly.

All areas of development are interconnected and help to support each other. The checklist also includes milestones from emotional, social, and physical development that are necessary for the development of language. No one area of development is more important than another, all are necessary for the development of the whole child.

By Two Months:

  • Startles or wakes at loud/sudden noises
  • Self-regulation: calms when comforted
  • Expressive language: expresses needs through different cries (ex. hungry, tired, needs a change)
  • Social interest: studies faces, enjoys physical connection
  • Receptive language: recognizes and responds to familiar voices
  • Visual exploration: follows movement with eyes
  • Expressive language: vocalizes a variety of sounds (coos, gurgles)

By Four Months:

  • Social interest: smiles at familiar adults
  • Social interest: observing others
  • Visual exploration: tracking moving objects/people with eyes
  • Auditory exploration: making sounds when looking at toys or people
  • Auditory: responding to familiar sounds, especially voices
  • Imitation: imitating adult behaviour and actions, smiles when you smile
  • Expressive language: responds to you with movement and making sounds

By Six Months:

  • Receptive language: responds to own name
  • Social interest/ expressive language: smiling and vocalizing when given adult attention
  • Receptive language: responding to familiar words or named objects
  • Receptive/expressive language: responding to human voices by vocalizing
  • Expression of emotion/ expressive language: vocalizing pleasure and displeasure
  • Auditory: responding and turning toward new sounds
  • Auditory exploration: notice some toys make sounds

By Nine Months:

  • Imitation: imitating facial expressions
  • Auditory: turning to look for source of sounds
  • Receptive language: understanding short simple instructions (ex. “wave bye”, “don’t touch”)
  • Expressive language: babbling with a wide variety of sounds
  • Expressive language: signaling using sounds and gestures to initiate social contact
  • Communication skills: plays simple turn taking games such as peek-a-boo
  • Intentional communication: reaching to be picked up and held

By Twelve Months:

  • Imitation: imitating actions and sounds
  • Receptive language: responds to own name being called by looking at the person speaking
  • Receptive language: understanding and responding to simple verbal requests and questions (ex. “come here”, “where is your shoe?”)
  • Receptive language: recognizing named objects and responding by pointing
  • Expressive language: vocalizing as though talking by combining sounds together
  • Vocabulary: beginning to repeat overheard words
  • Vocabulary: consistently uses three or more words*
  • Expressive language: uses body language, gestures, sounds or words to express needs
  • Communication skills: enjoys simple turn taking games and back-and-forth vocal play

*words do not have to be clear, sign language counts, animals sounds such a “moo” for cow also counts as a word.

If You Feel Concerned

It is normal to feel concerned over how your child is developing. As parents we worry whether or not our child is on track especially when we compare them to other children. It is important to remember that each child develops differently and at their own pace. The milestones a child reaches are not set in stone. Even if your child has reached a certain age, say 4 months, and is still not showing signs of responding to you with sounds it may not be cause for concern.

If there are more than two milestones for your child’s age that they haven’t mastered then you may want to speak to your family doctor to check in. Delays are common and can occur for a variety of reasons. Feel free to contact us at Voyages in Parenting for a developmental screening for your child.

Engaging in Language Activities

Children do not need to be put into any type of baby classes for language development, formal teaching is not necessary at this age. These skills develop naturally through day to day interactions at home. Don’t force them to engage if they are not interested. Pushing them towards skills they are not developmentally ready for can have a negative effect on their learning experience and will not help advance their overall development. Let your child go at their own pace, enjoy the moment as your child works towards learning these skills. The following activities will help support the development of language in your child.


Provide books for your infant and spend time reading to them. This is a great way to build their receptive language skills, expand vocabulary, as well as lay the foundations of literacy. If you are face to face with your child when reading they will be able to watch your mouth as you speak. This can also help them understand nonverbal expressions.

It doesn’t matter if you only read a single page or your child just wants to flip the pages back and forth. As long as it is a positive experience for your child it can help create a love of reading. Point to an image as you say the word to help your child make associations and develop their language.

language development

Children’s eyes are not fully developed when they are born therefore using high contrast books for the first three months can help support both their language and visual development. Books with real images can help stimulate children’s language development as they make associations with the images and items in real life. Similarly books that engage the senses are also great for stimulating language development as children are sensorial learners. This will include touch and feel books or books that play sounds or music.


Engage in everyday conversations, point out and label objects, talk to you child about what you see and hear, or narrate what you’re doing. This is a simple but effective way to provide vocabulary exposure to promote language development in infants. Use simple words and speak slowly. Pause after you speak, about 5-10 seconds to provide opportunities for your child to understand and respond before you begin speaking again.

Turn-taking Games:

Peek-a-boo supports non-verbal communication skills by teaching them social cues used in conversation. Pause and wait for them to respond before taking your turn again. Passing a ball or other toys back and forth is another way to engage these skills.


These are songs that combine singing with hand movements such as Pat-a-Cake or The Wheels on the Bus. In addition to supporting receptive and expressive language, these activities also contribute to literacy. The hand movements will help build hand and finger coordination as well as muscle strength. These fine motor skills will eventually be used when children are learning to write.

Animal Figurines:

Label the animals, make their sounds, play with them. This activity supports an infants vocabulary by exposing them to new words as well as making an easier connection between a word and object. Plus animal sounds, when used intentionally and in the proper context, count as words. For instance if your infant sees a dog and says “woof” that counts as a word.


Listening to music, playing with instruments and singing songs is an important way to support children’s language comprehension and acquisition as both music and language have rhythm and melody in their structure.

A 2019 study showed a connection between elements of music, such as rhythm and melody, and the acquisition of language, mainly phonological awareness and grammar. Additionally, informal musical exposure in the home was enough to have an impact on language development. Books, pictures and movement to accompany songs can help children make associations with the words. Singing during transition times can be especially helpful to make a transition go smoother.

Photo Album:

Create an album for your infant that includes photos of themselves as well as important people in their life. Name the people in the photos talk about what is happening in the photo. Not only does this support language development but also cognitive development through engaging memory.

Supporting Language Development

The most important thing you can do as a parent or caregiver is to provide opportunities for engagement. Activities and interactions at home can provide quality learning experiences for children. Offer encouragement to your child, remember to give them time to respond when communicating with them. Use simple, short phrases and remember to repeat, repeat and repeat. Repetition helps children retain information which is often why a child wants to read the same book over and over again. They are not done learning and want to hear it again to better understand.

Not only have infants have shown a preference for Parentese, also known as child directed speech, but also children learn through imitation. Listen to your child’s sounds and imitate them. Then encourage your child to imitate your speech. Interacting with your child and responding positively to their attempts to interact back can increase their interactions with you. Your child is going to be imitating you so speak how you want your child to learn to speak. They will begin to understand language before they can express it so remember to start this early.

As has been noted, receptive language starts to develop first and is therefore more advanced than expressive language. It can be easy to forget how much language development is going on during a child first year as it isn’t as noticeable as their physical growth. It can often feel like a long wait until they start speaking but there are so many fun things to do along the way to support this growth. Just enjoy the journey with your child and celebrate when you get there, it is such an exciting milestone when a child says their first word.

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